A new nature tourism awards program launched this year will recognize outstanding businesses and promote best practices in the industry, a tourism expert said.

The awards also are intended to help increase awareness among Texas residents about travel opportunities and the economic benefits of tourism to the state, said Miles Phillips, a Texas AgriLife Extension Service specialist for recreation, parks and tourism.

Nominations for the new awards will be accepted through July 15 for the 2009 Texas Travel Industry Association/Texas Nature Tourism Council Award Program, Phillips said. Winners will be announced after Aug. 15, and the awards will be distributed at the Texas Travel Summit in Arlington to be held Sept. 27-30.

A 2006 survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service documents the economic value of nature tourism, and in effect, points out the importance of recognizing and promoting best practices in the industry, Phillips said.

In 2006, some 6 million people participated in some form of fish and wildlife-related recreation in Texas, he said.

Anglers, hunters and wildlife viewers spent $8.91 billion in retail sales ($8.24 billion by residents and $671 million by non-residents), creating $4.67 billion in salaries and wages, and supporting 139,404 jobs, he said.

The total economic effect from fish and wildlife-related recreation for 2006 was estimated at $15.8 billion.

Individuals or organizations can nominate others or themselves, according to the application criteria.

The nomination form can be found at http://www.ttia.org/?tntcaward.