Tourism is growing in West Virginia as measured by the amount of money state government collects from the industry in taxes.
A recent study prepared by Dean Runyan and Associates, a leading national firm for tourism economic research, reveals that West Virginia’s tourism industry grew for the second consecutive year in 2018, climbing 6.5% and creating a $4.55 billion industry in 2018.
The purpose of the study was to document the economic significance of the travel industry in West Virginia from 2000 to 2018. According to the study, traveler spending in West Virginia has grown 9.9% in the past two years. Other key industry markers, including state and local tax revenue and tourism-supported jobs, were also up in 2018.
In absolute terms, tourism’s greatest impacts are highest in the state’s Eastern Panhandle. The area offers historic sites and attractions, but it also offers the Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races. The Eastern Panhandle brings in around $1 billion in total direct travel spending. The Northern Panhandle benefited from about $700 million in tourism, thanks mainly to the two casinos there.
While the study highlights what gambling has done for tourism in the panhandles, it understates what tourism has done in the southern part of the state.
Tourism Commissioner Chelsea Ruby said the study focused on tax revenues. Because outdoor tourism doesn’t have a tax tag attached to it, those numbers won’t show how well that aspect of the industry is actually doing, she said.
Tourism in the southern counties can be summed up in three letters: ORV, for off-road vehicles. That’s due largely to the success of the Hatfield-McCoy Trails system.
A new tourist attraction will open in southern Wayne County in early January when a 60-mile off-road vehicle trail opens in the Cabwaylingo State Forest, said Jeffrey Lusk, executive director of Hatfield-McCoy Trails, which will operate the trail.
As the whitewater rafting industry has matured and declined, off-road vehicle trails are probably the fastest-growing and most sustainable tourism business in southern West Virginia.
“We’re having a fantastic year,” Lusk said.
Hatfield-McCoy Trails sold a record 50,031 trail permits in 2018 and has already sold more than 53,000 this year, Lusk said. About 85% of trail users are nonresidents, he said.
Lusk said the 70-mile Ivy Branch trail in Lincoln County, which has been closed since late 2015, should re-open next spring.
Hatfield McCoy Trails is still working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in hopes of being able to develop a trail on federal land in the East Lynn Lake area, Lusk said. He said he hopes to get a definite decision on that proposal next year.
The trail system’s best marketing is word of mouth, but the state’s marketing efforts help, too, Lusk said.
Lusk said the state tourism office “does recognize the benefits of the trail system. You only have to look at their marketing to see that. Some portion of our growth is attributable to the state’s efforts.”
The Dean Runyan study focused mainly on the tax revenue generated by tourism and thus understated what ORV tourism brings to the state, Lusk said.
As the trail system grows, the opportunity for private investors also grows, Lusk said. That will be true in the Cabwaylingo area, he added.
“We need private entrepreneurs. We need cabins and campgrounds and restaurants,” Lusk said. Areas that have trailheads, such as Gilbert in Mingo County and Man in Logan County, have seen such businesses develop and cater to ORV tourists.
“These entrepreneurs are going to drive us into the future,” Lusk said.
So the tourism opportunities are there. It’s a matter of growth and time to see how far they can take us.