CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WV News) — After more than a year of canceled plans and staying at home, tourism in West Virginia is already bouncing back.
According to West Virginia Tourism Secretary Chelsea Ruby, the state is currently experiencing an uptick in visitors looking to experience all that’s wild and wonderful.
“We’re seeing more and more people become comfortable with travel nationwide, but particularly in West Virginia, where open spaces are not hard to find,” she said. “If you compare our numbers to 2019, we are now outpacing 2019 as far as arrivals into the state.”
Visits from out-of-state travelers are up, as are trips by residents traveling two hours or more to in-state destinations, Ruby said.
“We’ve had a great summer so far and are looking forward to welcoming the fall,” Ruby said.
On May 21, Ruby helped celebrate the grand opening of one of the state’s newest tourism attractions, Adventure Lake at Tygart Lake State Park.
Adventure Lake, made possible by a partnership between the West Virginia State Parks system and ACE Adventure Resort, features 25 slides, obstacles and other inflatables, as well as a sandy beach area with lounge chairs.
The water park is just one of several recent upgrades and improvements at Tygart Lake State Park, including $3 million in renovations to the park’s cabins, campground and lodge, which are expected to be completed this summer.
Additionally, more than $150 million in major improvements have been completed or started at every state park and forest over the past four years, Ruby said.
This is a reflection of Justice’s commitment prioritizing the potential of tourism to drive economic development in the state, Ruby said.
“We’ve seen this amazing evolution of tourism in West Virginia,” she said. “Four years ago, Gov. Justice said that we needed to triple the marketing budget at the State Tourism Office.”
That has resulted in a string of positive developments, including the designation of the New River Gorge area as the nation’s newest national park, Ruby said.
“We’re thrilled to see all the numbers going up,” she said. “We’ve seen over a 100% increase in revenues at the parks.”
In tracking the recent surge in visits to the state, she and her staff have noticed some shifts in traveler preferences from before the pandemic, Ruby said.
“We’re seeing big increases in vacation rentals in West Virginia, both in supply and demand,” she said. “We’re also seeing more and more rentals come online, and we’re seeing the occupancy rates for those properties increase every single month.”
Her office never really changed its overall tourism marketing strategy because of the pandemic, Ruby said.
“Our tourism strategy has always been about small mountain towns, outdoor recreation, wide open spaces and road trips,” she said. “Those are things that we’re continuing to promote post-pandemic. We’re seeing that people around the country are still preferring road trips; they are looking to get away and do things outdoors. West Virginia is the perfect place.”
The latest initiative aimed at promoting tourism in the state is the West Virginia Chef Ambassador Program, Ruby said.
The program will showcase talented chefs across the Mountain State to promote West Virginia’s culinary innovation, farm-to-table experiences and growing agritourism industry.
“Through that program, we’re looking to find talented chefs across West Virginia who will sign up to be our ambassador for a year and help us promote the culinary treasures found across West Virginia,” she said.
Ambassadors will be selected to serve a one-year term based on a set of evaluation criteria, such as years of experience in the foodservice industry, demonstration of leadership within the local community, innovation and culinary excellence in the workplace, and support of West Virginia agriculture.
“Each year, travelers spend more than $1.1 billion within our foodservice industry,” Ruby said. “Whether visitors are staying for a week or just passing through, our local flavors are often one of the first and most memorable experiences visitors have while traveling our country roads.”
In addition to receiving their well-earned title of chef ambassador, selected chefs will have several roles and responsibilities, all of which are designed to cultivate and grow West Virginia’s foodservice industry.
Each ambassador will be selected to represent a specific travel region in a myriad of ways — from hosting educational seminars for foodservice personnel to working alongside travel writers to promote and position West Virginia as a must-see culinary destination.
“This is such an incredible opportunity for us to tell our stories and showcase the talent found in the mountains of West Virginia. I encourage all West Virginians to take a moment and nominate their favorite chef today,” Justice said when announcing the initiative. “I know those selected will help us tell our story and shine a light on West Virginia, and I can’t wait to meet them.”
Another recently launched program is the West Virginia State Parks Ultimate Adventurer Challenge, as well as its companion program, the West Virginia State Parks Junior Adventurer Challenge.
The challenges, open through Sept. 30, were created to lead adventurers of any experience level on a series of outdoor explorations throughout the state parks system.
Those who visit wvstateparks.com/adventurechallenges can request a challenge card through the mail, which will include challenges such as discovering waterfalls and hiking multiple trails.
Once a challenge is completed, the participant can get their challenge card stamped at any park office or gift shop and post a photo to social media using #AlmostHeaven or #WVstateparks.
“This summer is off to a busy start in West Virginia’s state parks and forests, and the Adventurer Challenges provide even more ways for families to enjoy their visits to our parks and public lands,” Ruby said. “It’s incredible to see so many people heading to the outdoors in Almost Heaven, and now we’re looking forward to witnessing the excitement of both outdoor enthusiasts and kids who complete these new challenges.”
Senior Staff Writer Charles Young can be reached at 304-626-1447 or firstname.lastname@example.org