University of South Florida St. Petersburg



During a trip to Egmont Key, students get to experience the beauty of the island and learn about its fascinating past.

Exploring sustainable tourism on Egmont Key through virtual reality

By Sarah Sell, University Communications and Marketing

A group of students spent the day exploring sustainable tourism on Egmont Key through an app developed at USF that digitally documents the island's rich history. The software application brings the buildings of old Fort Dade to life through virtual and augmented reality technologies.

"Step Into History Egmont Key" is a collaboration between USF's Access 3D Lab, Advanced Visualization Center and the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management, which expanded to the St. Petersburg campus in 2022 due to the increased demand for workers in the hospitality and tourism field. 

The multi-year research project explores invisible histories and enhances sustainable tourism by documenting the island through 3D LiDAR scanning and GIS analysis to visualize and digitally preserve Egmont Key's endangered heritage.

"It's important for students to understand what sustainable tourism is about. A lot of times, people think it's about picking up our trash, but sustainable tourism is also about telling the people part of the stories and increasing the interpretation of the places that we visit," said Brooke Hansen, associate professor of instruction at the Muma College of Business School of Hospitality and Tourism Management. "We can do that today through virtualization technologies with all our scanners and equipment we have at USF."

The trip to Egmont Key was part of Hansen's honors courses, Sustainable Tourism Practices and Destination Stewardship: Promoting Sustainable Tourism in Pinellas County.

Over the past 150 years, nearly half of Egmont Key's 328-acre land mass has succumbed to erosion, submerging several heritage sites and threatening numerous others. A project is underway by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to place dredged sand from the Tampa Harbor channel around the island. Geotextile cubes are also being installed to help stabilize the beach and protect the historic structures.

"One of the biggest threats to Florida and the islands is the rising sea level and other things imposed by climate change, so making a trip like this is very important to history," said Marza Hiatt, a USF St. Petersburg Sustainability Studies major. "There's a lot of things we don't have anymore, so having documentation and learning more about what we have right now is important for the future and what we can do to mitigate these changes."

Egmont Key is rich in history, dating back to 1848, when the lighthouse was first built on the island to help guide ships entering Tampa Bay. That same year, a hurricane damaged the structure, and the lighthouse was rebuilt to withstand storms.

During the late 1850s, the island served as a camp for captured Seminoles during the Indian Removal Period and was later occupied by the Union Navy during the Civil War. In 1898, Fort Dade was established on Egmont Key to safeguard the Tampa Bay area from the imminent Spanish-American War. Construction on the fort was completed in 1906, and during that time, there was a town that included a hospital, power plant, movie theatre, bakery and railroad that surrounded the island.

"When we are on the island and go to the old bakery site at Ford Dade, we can use our smart devices and the old bakery will appear in front of us. We can bring what is now a piece of rubble back to life and talk about what it was like on the island in the early 20th century for the military personnel who were there," Hansen said, who is also co-editing a book on the island titled "Engaging the Disappearing Island: Invisible Histories, Sustainable Tourism, and Digital Heritage at Egmont Key."

The fort was deactivated in 1923 and later burned down by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency as it tried to get rum runners off the island.

Despite its fascinating and sometimes dark past, Egmont Key remains a top tourist destination for beachgoers, hikers and military buffs. It is also a national wildlife refuge for thousands of migratory birds.

Hansen and the others at USF hope that the app can one day be used as part of a walking tour so future generations can enjoy the island and learn about its history.

Return to article listing

About the Newsroom

At the USF St. Petersburg campus newsroom, we highlight the people, events and initiatives that make us distinct. From groundbreaking research to inspiring student profiles, we are dedicated to telling our campus' story and promoting its value to the greater Tampa Bay community and beyond.


Harbor Notes News

Learn about the latest news, research updates and public events in our Harbor Notes News and Harbor Notes Events newsletters.