As Endeavour blasts off, "Space Coast" tourism begins a countdown of its own

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The Independent Online

Florida's coastline has been popular with tourists for as long as most people can remember -- millions pour in every year to witness the high-profile launches of NASA shuttles. But with the American shuttle program coming to an end this year, the area is getting nervous.

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Florida's coastline has been popular with tourists for as long as most people can remember - millions pour in every year to witness the high-profile launches of NASA shuttles. But with the American shuttle program coming to an end this year, the area is getting nervous.

Even at 4AM, there were thousands of spectators craning their necks as Endeavour streaked across the night sky Monday morning. On the edge of the nearby city of Titusville, visitors crammed into "Space View Park," an attraction that provides visitors with an observation point complete with live audio feed from mission control and "History of Space" exhibit. It is an area that's fiercely proud of the part it has played in history - Apollo 11 lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in 1969 - and also facing a very uncertain future.

NASA plans to launch four more space shuttle missions, the final one slated for September 16, 2010. Each launch draws thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of people, to the area, providing around $4 million (€2.9 million) per launch in revenue for the hotels, restaurants and museums on Space Coast. With the end of the program, the area is being forced to diversify.

It is launching a huge advertising campaign to highlight its other offers, most notably the cruise ships that berth in the nearby harbors, the cultural attractions in the area, and ecotourism opportunities. During 2007, over 1 million people attended cultural events in Brevard county, 20 percent of them cultural tourists, a route that the Brevard Cultural Alliance is working to improve. To do this, it's trying to highlight the museums, galleries and museums to guests, and co-ordinating a countywide "Art in Public Places" exhibition to showcase local art to visitors.

The local tourism association is also pushing ecotourism as a solution. The area is home to 250 square miles (647 square kilometers) of wildlife refuge and hosts the Space Coast Birding & Wildlife Festival each January, which draws visitors from across the US. The region's wildlife parks, including the Merritt Island National Wildlife, Maritime Hammock Sanctuary and Viera Wetlands will all be aiming to garner their share of tourist dollars once the final shuttle has blasted off.

Space Coast Tourism, the area's tourism authority, is also after one of the two decommissioned shuttles that NASA is offering to the public, in a bid to retain its appeal to space enthusiasts. Kennedy Space Centre will remain open, although locals are afraid that it will become more of a war museum than scientific attraction.

As the area begins its own countdown, tourism officials are upbeat despite the loss of the industry that gave the area its name. "I think people are thinking we are just going to close down the space center and go home," Space Coast Tourism director Rob Varley told CFNews13, a local news channel. "That's not the case."

Five (non-Space) things to do in Space Coast

1. Eat rock shrimp at the Dixie Crossroads Seafood Restaurant
2. Go shopping in the 1860s Cocoa Village
3. Observe nature at the Indian River Lagoon
4. Visit the Valiant Air Command Warbird Aviation Museum
5. See or join the cruise ships departing Port Canaveral

Source: http://www.space-coast.com/

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