Estuarium city’s best tourist attraction

Published 10:08 am Friday, March 20, 2009

By Staff
Imagine you’re on the game show “Jeopardy,” and the answer to the question is: “The North Carolina Estuarium.”
One good response might be, “What was the first facility in America to be called an estuarium?”
Another could be, “Where’s the best place to learn about the second-largest estuarine system in the United States?”
But perhaps the best Jeopardy question to accompany that answer is: “Where’s the first place you would tell tourists to visit if they went to Washington, North Carolina?”
Interest in establishing a local tourism economy is high these days, and as the recent Randall survey indicates, Washington has much to offer.
Most visitors here find their experience to be very positive. They enjoy the beautiful Pamlico, true small-town charm and more than 200 years of history — and our inviting restaurants and interesting shops.
But tourists also like a specific place to visit at their destination, and that’s what the estuarium has been providing since 1998. The estuarium might even be the closest thing to a true “tourist attraction” ever built here.
The estuarium celebrated its 11th anniversary in January, but its origins go back to the late 1980s, when former Pamlico-Tar River Foundation Director Dave McNaught began promoting Washington as an ideal site for an educational facility interpreting America’s second-largest estuarine system — the Albemarle-Pamlico.
City, county and business leaders soon embraced this idea, and a community success story began. By the mid-1990s, more than $1 million was raised locally to support construction of the facility, which in turn helped leverage the state funding needed to build a first-class center.
More importantly, backers of the estuarium saw that the initiative could be made more durable if they joined with neighboring counties that were trying to establish related environmental-education centers at the same time. This coalition of community interests evolved into the Partnership for the Sounds, which built those centers and has been fostering eco/heritage tourism throughout the Albemarle-Pamlico peninsula since 1994.
Of course the estuarium (and the other Partnership facilities) are more than just tourist attractions. They also strive to be integral parts of community life by providing ongoing opportunities for locals to learn more about the nature and culture of this amazing region.
But we know tourists are key, and a quick scan of the estuarium guest book for Tuesday and Wednesday of this week — still our slow season and smack in the middle of an international recession — shows this: RI, PA, VA, WV, OH, IL, TN, MD, AL, DE, MA, KY, a place called Salome, AZ, UK (United Kingdom), 12 other N.C. counties, and plenty of folks from right around here.
People come to Washington for a variety of reasons and will enjoy it in a variety of ways, but the estuarium helps give a memory to every visit.
Those involved in fostering tourism here today are building it on home-grown assets. Washington isn’t going to be Myrtle Beach, nor should we want it to be.
The Washington Tourism Development Authority, DWOW, the Turnage Theater, the Beaufort County Arts Council and the Chamber of Commerce, along with many others and a growing list of special events, are all contributing greatly toward bringing people from the wider world to our community while helping us stay true to our “Original” roots.
The estuarium is proud to have helped get this movement started. And, having just completed a significant addition to our gift shop following a major exhibit upgrade in 2007, we look forward to remaining a centerpiece of local tourism for many years to come.