What do West Virginia and northwest Iceland have in common?
Global travel guide Lonely Planet designated both as top-10 destinations in 2022, alongside other tourism hotspots. In a keynote speech at the recent Jefferson County Tourism Summit, West Virginia Secretary of Tourism Chelsea Ruby pointed out that raising the profile of the state is one of her goals and the focus of the state’s ongoing “Almost Heaven” advertising campaign.
Within West Virginia, Jefferson County ranks at the top for tourism. According to a 2019 analysis prepared for Secretary Ruby by national economic consultants Dean Runyan Associates, tourism in Jefferson County supported more than 7,000 jobs, brought more than $840 million in direct spending, and generated $10.5 million in local government tax revenues.
And the region is positioned to attract even more tourism in the years ahead, according to experts speaking at last month’s conference.
“We’ve got a lot of momentum,” emphasized outdoor recreation expert Danny Twilley. Twilley, who runs the Outdoor Economic Development Collaborative at West Virginia University, explained that Jefferson County and surrounding region have all three components needed for success as an outdoor recreation destination: outfitters, lodging, and other service providers; extensive public lands (501 climbs and 20 whitewater runs located within 90 minutes of the county); and vibrant small town communities that draw hikers, cyclists and other active visitors.
To continue attracting outdoor recreation enthusiasts, Twilley recommended that the region focus on providing additional trails as well as visitor access to water bodies such as the Potomac River.
Jefferson County is the site of several other major tourism-based venues, according to Shepherd University Economics Professor Kathleen Reid, such as the Contemporary American Theater Festival, Charles Town Races and Slots, and Summit Point Motorsports. In addition to these organizations’ own local spending, a high number of visitors to these venues come from outside the region and when they come, Reid said, “they purchase gas, eat meals at local restaurants, lodge at local hotels, and shop at local stores. This spending… injects money into the West Virginia economy that becomes income to the local proprietors. In turn, that income is later spent, sending a ripple effect throughout the economy.”
To support students’ interest in exploring tourism-based careers, and in response to growing demand from local businesses for talent, Shepherd University offers minors in tourism, hospitality management, and related topics. The university’s programs are “designed to develop the knowledge, skills and abilities necessary to function in the relevant industry and to appreciate the challenges inherent to this service field,” Professor Reid explained. In light of growing demand from local businesses for tourism-related talent, Shepherd School of Recreation Professor Stacey Kendig, who is also involved in overseeing Shepherd’s offerings, indicated the need to educate students about the potential of these areas. “[Students] get ‘sports’ but they don’t get ‘tourism’ as an opportunity,” she observed, while noting the importance of the type of hands-on externships and capstone projects offered by the University — just recently, for example, with the Harpers Ferry-Bolivar Historic Town Foundation.
The Tourism Summit that took place in April at the Bavarian Inn was organized by the Jefferson County Convention and Visitors Bureau (DiscoverItAllWV.com), which plans to hold the event each year.By Harriet Pearson