West Virginia tourism spending surpasses pre-pandemic levels

West Virginia tourism spending surpasses pre-pandemic levels

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — More people are traveling to West Virginia than ever before.

Much of that has to do with a boom in outdoor recreation, according to state Tourism Secretary Chelsea Ruby.

Secretary Chelsea Ruby

“There’s a bit of a myth that started with the pandemic, but if you look at our research, it was something that was starting years before that. The pandemic accelerated it and now it’s really exploding,” Ruby told MetroNews during the Governor’s Conference on Tourism in Huntington this week.

Gov. Jim Justice released the state’s annual economic impact research Wednesday that showed traveler spending in West Virginia exceeded $4.9 billion in 2021, putting tourism up 3.8 percent over pre-pandemic levels.

“It comes as no surprise to me that our great state has come out on top of all the others once again,” Justice said in a statement. “I want to congratulate the entire tourism industry for all their hard work to help make this growth possible. I am looking forward to seeing our tourism industry continue to grow for many more years to come!”

The research was prepared by Dean Runyan and Associates, a firm that has studied the impact of West Virginia’s tourism industry since 2000.

Nationally, tourism is still down 27 percent from 2019. Ruby said the designation of the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve in Fayette County helped put the state on the map. Growth and traveler spending in that region was up 74 percent the year following the designation, Ruby said.

“It’s been unbelievable to see the local and regional growth there, but to also see the way that is has changed the image of our state,” she said.

The state has been encouraging more people to live and work in West Virginia through incentive programs. A number of companies have announced plans in the last year to build manufacturing facilities in the state and employ thousands of new jobs, which will bring even more people to the Mountain State.

Ruby said in order to keep building on that growth, there needs to be solid workforce development.

“We have to keep making sure that the number of people that we’re getting is sustainable, but right now it is,” she said. “We’re seeing a lot of great revenue coming into our counties and into the state.”

In addition to traveler spending, the report also shows that visitor spending for accommodations was $723 million, which is an increase of 44.1 percent. Visitors who stayed in a short-team rental spent $176 million in 2021, which is an increase of 15.4 percent.

Ruby said the summer season was packed with visitors.

“We’re seeing a huge increase in both supply and demand meaning we’ve got new vacation rentals coming online every month and we still can’t keep up with the great demand we have in West Virginia,” she said.

Tourism leaders now want to capitalize on “niche” audiences in small towns.

“You’ve seen the motorcycle routes that the governor has recently rolled out. We’re rolling out a Chef Ambassador program to put some attention on dining and culinary experiences. We’re looking at some of these areas where we’ve under performed in the past and trying to figure out how can we build up those specific niche audiences,” Ruby said.

This year, West Virginia is expected to surpass $5 billion in travel spending for the first time in the state’s history.

Ruby said this upcoming fall season will be a great time to visit as the leaves change colors. In addition to their road map for drivers, the state Tourism Office also plans to release a fall foliage map for hikers.

“We’re going to do featured fall colored hikes to tell people where the best color is you can go hiking,” she said.

The Governor’s Conference on Tourism returned Tuesday and runs through Wednesday. It’s the first time the conference is being held in Huntington and in-person since 2019.

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