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Outdoor pursuits brighten WV’s economic outlook

By Staff | Mar 31, 2010

Ready for a pleasant, under reported, surprise concerning West Virginia’s economic structure?

Although you hear of downturn concerns often in mining and manufacturing, the state from 1980-2000 enjoyed higher than average employment increases from an assemblage of hard to track overlapping sectors: Travel, tourism, hotel use, amusements, recreation and gambling.

 Two studies have been undertaken to shine bright economic smiles on tourism. One dated Aug. 15, 2006 is titled “Tourism and the West Virginia Economy” and another, conducted by the firm of Dean Runyan Associates, details, 2000-2008 Economic Impacts of Travel on West Virginia and its counties.

 The state earns about $12 million dollars daily from tourism and related sectors. That amounts to $4.38 billion dollars annually pumped into state and local economies. In some areas of the state, it is one of the primary sources of earnings and employment. (Secondary impacts known as multipliers make this a conservative estimate.)

 According to a 2006 Department of Forestry report, the state’s abundant natural resources rank tourism as the “second largest industry in the state in terms of total economic impact and employment” to coal mining. Forestry ranks third.

For instance, did you know that in 2008 travel spending supported 44,000 jobs? Aside from the anticipated accommodation and recreation sectors, food service, the arts and entertainment shared just over $900 million dollars. (On the other hand, if this segment of state income evaporated, each household would pay $800 annually in taxes to maintain current state and local services!)

Tourist spending has nearly doubled since 2000 ($2.4 billion) increasing in 2008 to nearly $4.4 billion dollars, according to the conservatively estimated Dean Runyan statistics. 

What are the top five reasons overnight visitors come to the Mountain State? You could find the results surprising. Studies from the state’s Welcome Centers indicate that recreational activities (i.e. white water rafting) may have peaked; instead, visitors staying an average of three days list dining out, shopping, state parks, museums and civil war as their reasons for coming to the state. The Civil War’s popularity is likely to grow as 2011-2015 sesquicentennial of the war and West Virginia’s statehood.

Rafting had a peak in 1995 when 257,446 people took a plunge, but this fell to just under 250,000 in 2000 and to 214,000 in 2004. The ski industry has grown dramatically (602,000 skiers in 1995-96 to 857,000 in 2002-2003) but like national figures the growth that had been 3-4 percent, flattened in 2003-2004 (812,000). Still, since 1995, over $200 million dollars have been invested at or near Snowshoe Mountain, including an increase in condos from 1,200 to 1,600. (Based on “Tourism and the WV Economy,” 2006).

However, the particularly snowy 2009-2010 period could produce statistics that show a rebound especially since the season has been longer than usual from the colder weather.

The Hatfield McCoy Trails in Logan, Mingo, Boone and Wyoming counties have been a growth juggernaut —going from 4,000 use permits (2001) to 22,000 (2004).

Skiing, the outdoors, a resort or visiting a casino severely dwarf the No. 1 reason why people come to West Virginia — 45 percent come to visit friends and relatives. (By comparison, a visit to a casino hits 7 percent, the outdoors 5 percent, and skiing/snowboarding, 3 percent).

Still, the report by the WV Department of Commerce projects that the floundering economy has altered leisure expenditures, meaning more day trips and weekend getaways. Fortunately, the Mountain State benefits from nearby cities (such as Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh, Cleveland) and surrounding states, like Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Ohio and Maryland, whose populace head to our mountain byways when doing mostly online planning for “shorter trips, closer to home.”

The 2010 marketing plan for our four-season tourist destination stresses outdoor recreation year-round and specific monthly themes, such as Fairs & Festivals (June), Arts/Culture (July) and Fall Foilage (September). Winter sports dominate November, December and January.

Nationwide, outdoor recreation supports 6.5 million jobs derived from bicycling, camping, fishing, hunting, paddling (rafting and canoeing), snow sports, trails (day hiking, back packing and rock climbing) and wildlife viewing. Prior to opening its store near Wheeling, Cabela’s received a significant amount of mail orders from the Mountain State.

The Outdoor Foundation indicates that the outdoor recreation economy supports 61,000 jobs, generates nine percent of the gross state product, and a “ripple effect” of $4.3 billion annually in retail sales and services. Use of a “ripple” economic impact incorporates both direct jobs and sales in that sector, but adds indirect contributions such as hotel occupancy, entertainment, food and beverage sales, professional services and real estate sales.

The Foundation calculates that the No. 1 active outdoor recreational activity is wildlife viewing with bird watching at 33 percent of population followed by camping at 28 percent of population. Next comes trail running at 27 percent then virtual ties of 15 and 16 percent for bicycling, fishing and hunting. Snow sports account for only 6 percent of the state’s population (which does not account for out of state visitors).

According to “Linking Tourism Benefits and Local Economic Benefits,” a research study by Jinyang Deng and David Dyre for the Recreation, Parks and Tourism Program at WVU, rural counties (like Pocahontas) have benefited economically by replacing agriculture dependencies with capitalization on scenic and recreational tourism resources.

The Deng/Dyre study echoes a similar phenomenon across the U.S., where counties with high levels of natural amenities reported 20 percent population “rebounds” from the 1990s compared to 10.4 percent for all rural counties. Due to less population, the rural percentage increases in service employment (health, recreation, entertainment, professional services) are steeper than those of more urban counties (such as Kanawha) where wider opportunities abound.

One component of encouraging visits to West Virginia comes through attracting motion picture, film, music and commercial productions. The natural scenic beauty would seem to be an almost heavenly match.

Huntington leaders took a calculated risk by accepting and cooperating with the nearly four-month production timetable of “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution.” Instead of negativity, the celebrity chef has stressed that Huntington’s obesity statistics are only three percent above the national average.

Oliver’s production may hit a few raw nerves, but during the week leading up to “Food Revolution’s” debut on ABC-TV, Oliver has appeared on Larry King, David Letterman, and Nightline. The principal and cooking staff from Central Elementary School also accepted an invitation to speak via satellite with King. (An unconfirmed, well-placed source indicated that Michelle Obama will later add an endorsement and/or appearance.)

Like the shooting of “We Are Marshall” that captured the city’s major attractions (and what a marketing tool that money cannot buy for the university and recruiting), Oliver’s show contains shots of the people and region (one aerial of the 29th Street Ohio River suspension bridge is particularly beautiful and striking during a cutaway in the production).

Exposure such as this assists in countering some established stereotypes (such as cannibalistic, hollow-dwelling, toothless recluses in “Wrong Turn”).

Contact Tony at trutherford@graffitiwv.com