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Destination spot New tourism center serves west side crowd

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Published:   |   Updated: August 7, 2013 at 10:45 AM

WEEKI WACHEE - Tammy Heon knows it takes more than a brochure to entice visitors to check out all Hernando County has to offer.

On July 1, the Hernando County Tourism Bureau opened up a second location, intimately located inside the gift shop at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park.

With hundreds of thousands of people visiting the park every year to see the world-famous mermaids, Heon knew Weeki Wachee Springs is where she wanted to open a second location.

"It's the perfect place for us to be," Heon said, adding "the park bent over backwards to work with us."

Instead of paying rent, the tourism bureau prints the park's brochures. Heon said she had 75,000 brochures on press the first week of August alone.

The guest log of the past four weeks shows many Florida visitors, but also guests from northern states such as Minnesota, and as far away as Russia.

Ruby Turner, promotions specialist for county tourism who spends most days at the Weeki Wachee location, said many visitors pass through Hernando County because they want to explore the coast, or because they visited Weeki Wachee Springs when they were little and wanted to return with their own kids.

Turner, who previously worked in parks and recreation, said she sometimes has to re-stock pamphlets in the center twice a day, but can also provide up-to-date insight, such as the bear corridor, or the new boardwalk at Pine Island.

Hernando County's east side tourism center - the only tourism bureau until the Weeki Wachee location opened up - is located at 31085 Cortez Blvd., just east of I-75. Heon said the interstate crowd is different from the Gulf crowd - with more snowbirds coming in to the Cortez Boulevard bureau looking for directions or a recommendation on where to have lunch.

Weeki Wachee Springs sees more families, Heon said, adding visitors benefit from actually seeing the springs, and the preserves, understanding Hernando County has something to offer even without miles of white sand beaches.

"Now they see what we're talking about, they get it," Heon said. "It's a more positive exchange."

The tourism bureau also offers more technologically advanced tools for visitors and locals alike.

Heon said their website, http://www.naturallyhernando.com, is now optimized for mobile phone use, making it easier to access visitor information and events calendar.

Turner also curates the bureau's Pinterest page, providing event photos and collections of Old Florida photographs.

Turner said the last Saturday in July was the center's busiest yet, with 113 visitors signing in.

Teaching Hernando County residents about their backyard is part of the mission as well, Heon said, as well as helping connect local business owners with tourists.

"Our long term goal is to be the master calendar keeper," Heon said.

A ribbon cutting is schedule for Aug. 23 at noon. Heon said the tourism bureau is always "actively recruiting volunteers."

The Hernando County Tourism Bureau can be reached by phone at (800) 601-4580 or (352) 754-4405, and by email at info@hernandocounty.us.

wbiddlecombe@hernandotoday.com

(352) 544-5283

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