Randy Yohe Published

Tourism Day On Full Display At The Legislature 

Rafts on a river.Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

In 2022, state tourism revenue set an all time record with $5 billion  in traveler spending. “Almost Heaven” was on full display as Tourism Day filled the State Capitol rotunda halls on Monday.   

Thousands of people from throughout the state, country and world experience the thrill of whitewater rafting on West Virginia rivers every year. Some are whitewater veterans, but many first-timers come to West Virginia to experience the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve and raft through the heart of one of the state’s most beautiful areas. 

Chelsea Bricker is marketing leader with Adventures on the Gorge, one of several whitewater rafting outfits. Chelsea explained that these days, Fayette County tourist destinations offer much more than rafting.   

“We do ziplining; we do rock climbing. We do rappelling; we do mountain biking. We have an aerial obstacle course as well,” Bricker said. “You can do a hiking trip in the New River Gorge. You really can come and spend an entire week there, or just come for a couple days. We also have a pool right on the edge of the New River Gorge National Park so you can relax if that’s your idea of an adventure.”

A hidden tourism gem in Mason County, the West Virginia State Farm Museum offers snapshots in history, representing the industry of the farm as well as the state’s farm heritage. Museum Executive Director Tim Kidwell said following a COVID-19 downtime, 2023 museum events will be back in full harvest. 

“We’ll start off with a spring steam and engine shed. Hopefully weather permitting, we usually have 50 to 60 antique engines and tractors on display and in operation,” Kidwell said, “Then each month we actually hold an antique tractor show during the summer and we’ll be wrapping up the year this year with our fall festival.” 

One tourism day display, presented by Jay Fryman with Backroads of Appalachia, showcases his popular regional motorsports trail ride organization, now getting legislative approval for people to ride into West Virginia. 

“Backroads of Appalachia is a nonprofit organization who does economic development to motor sports tourism for the poorest regions of Appalachia,” Fryman said. “We work in Eastern Kentucky, southwest Virginia, eastern Tennessee, and now West Virginia. We’re working with the West Virginia state Legislature to develop a trail system here and promote it to bring that tourism into the small towns. We haven’t had anything since coal died. So that’s what we did.”

The state currently employs more than 44,000 people working in direct tourism jobs. With expected growth, there’s an estimated 24,000 annual job openings, and many of those in the hospitality industry, someone needs to house and feed all those tourists.

The past few years, southern West Virginia Hatfield McCoy ATV trails have rivaled whitewater rafting and winter skiing in bringing in thousands of out of state tourists. John Fekete, deputy executive director for the Hatfield McCoy Trails, said last year they sold 95,000 trail passes and 80 percent of those were non-resident, out of state people. Fekete said the challenge is finding places in the coalfields for those trail riders to lodge and eat. 

”We need more entrepreneurs. We need more development. We’re seeing some of that now. We saw a couple of big resorts come in in the last couple of years,” Fekete said. “Ashland Resort down in McDowell County, they’re growing. They’ve been around for about 10 years. We’ve got the Devil’s Backbone over in Red Jacket. They’ve got almost 50 cabins and are in the process of building 100 more. So the developments are coming but we need more.”

In Nicholas County meanwhile, high schoolers have started the Good Gauley Coffee Company, giving students a head start in one of many tourism hospitality trades. Katie Goette, the ProStart culinary teacher at Nicholas County Career and Technical Center said food tourism or food niches are really quite popular right now. And a barista job may offer more interest and advancement than your fast food endeavor.

“It’s great for these students. It’s an empowering first entry level job into the business instead of fast food,” Goette said. “As a barista or roasting coffee, you have to learn the flavor profiles, which is a great entry level culinary skill. You have to have customer service and get to know your customers and what kind of – how they want their coffee, how they like what they like, and how they take their coffee.”

West Virginia’s record setting 2022 tourism gains were experienced throughout the four corners and two panhandles of the state, with even stronger revenues expected in 2023.