Eric Douglas Published

Tourism Jobs Lagging, But Increases Expected

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For some, West Virginia has long been a destination for outdoor activities. Visitors have come for skiing, hiking and whitewater rafting along with riding ATVs.

While the pandemic shook up most of the world’s economies, including tourism, it actually gave things in the Mountain State a boost.

According to a press release from Gov. Jim Justice’s office, West Virginia’s tourism industry is up 3.8 percent compared to pre-pandemic levels.

Nationally, tourism is down 27 percent compared to 2019.

Even with the increases in West Virginia, employment in the tourism industry has not kept up.

According to Chelsea Ruby, the state’s Secretary of Tourism, employment often lags a couple years behind visitor spending.

Halfway through 2017, 2018, what we saw was traveler spending was growing really fast,” Ruby said. “We were outpacing the national rate of growth by about 58 percent. Well, then you get to 2019. And you see this, this huge increase, where employment was actually the highest it had been in the previous decade, because it was starting to catch up with that spending growth.”

According to data from Workforce West Virginia, the leisure and hospitality sector employs almost 69,000 people. But that’s actually 4,000 fewer people than in 2011. And only about 5,000 more than in 2001.

Ruby uses slightly different numbers representing only those who actually work in tourism and hospitality. Workforce West Virginia’s numbers include people who work in support industries.

Right before the pandemic, we were at the height of where we’ve been as far as directly employed tourism employees,” she said. “And the second thing you’ll see is a gradual increase in earnings that we’ve seen as far as the ratio between earnings and in jobs. We’re starting to pay more in these positions, which I think is important to long term growth in the industry.”

Representatives from the travel and hospitality industry see the challenges ahead, but remain optimistic about the state’s potential for growth as an outdoor destination.

The spending trends are back and better than ever,” Richie Heath, executive director of the West Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association, said. “You’re seeing with the tourism report that spending is up over where it was in the pandemic.”

The governor’s report indicates traveler spending in West Virginia exceeded $4.9 billion in 2021. Spending for lodging alone was up more than 44 percent.

But Heath agreed that employment is still lagging. Every industry is looking for qualified workers, according to reports.

Heath said there is a wide variety of opportunities for tourism jobs beyond whitewater guides and ski instructors. Some West Virginians are taking advantage of the influx of visitors with boutique businesses like specialty stores, wedding barns, distilleries and breweries.

“You’ve got a lot of tourism activity going on in southern West Virginia now, which, obviously, has needed some of that development,” Heath said. “And we’re seeing local businesses down there, they’re now expanding. They’re doing cabins and lodging and things like that geared towards all the traffic on the Hatfield McCoy trail.”

The Hatfields and McCoys Trail is a southern West Virginia success story — on one level. It is bringing money and visitors into a region of our state that has struggled in recent years. It opened in 2000 and has grown every year since. This year, they sold 95,000 permits to ride the trails from March to November. Eighty percent of those visitors are from out of state.

For Jeffrey Lusk, the executive director of the trails system, it’s about the businesses created by West Virginians.

We’re kind of an engine of entrepreneurship,” Lusk said. “We’ve had a lot of businesses open up around the trails. These businesses primarily are lodging. There has been some food service and stuff like that. I would call us, if I had to frame us, we’re a small regional tourist destination. That’s how you would frame us.”

Lusk explained that impact studies show the trail system brings in about $68 million in revenue. But it supports fewer than 700 direct jobs. Most of the cabins and other lodging places only employ one or two full-time employees and a few part-time cleaning people.

It’s not an engine for jobs. It’s definitely an engine for entrepreneurship,” he said.

The pandemic was actually a bonus for the trails. Ridership grew as people were looking to do things — but be outside and away from crowds.

When we were coming into the pandemic, we were at 55,000 riders,” Lusk said. “We came out of that at 95,000. And there’s no way I could have told you in the next 36 months, we’re going to grow 40,000 riders.”

Lusk said the trail system has about 1,000 miles of trails, but the area is saturated with trails. There are plans to expand into several more counties in the central part of the state, but he said that is years away.

They can accommodate more riders on the trails they have, but even that is limited.

I’m just gonna say we’re maybe at 50 percent capacity,” he said. “I think if you doubled what we had, I think you would get to a point where it would start to diminish the quality for the person.”

One of the big questions when it comes to tourism is — do tourism jobs replace the manufacturing or mining jobs the state has lost over the years?

Jordan Nuzum, the communications director for the West Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association, noted that the expected jobs aren’t all entry level, minimum wage type positions.

“Between now and 2025, I think they said that they’re expecting about 24,000 job openings in hospitality and tourism, and 13,000 of those, so over half, would be management style jobs,” Nuzum said.

The state recently received a $5 million grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration. Rather than investing that money into advertising or infrastructure, Tourism secretary Ruby said the state chose to use the grant for education.

“We felt like we were doing well in those other two areas, but felt like this was an area where we should focus,” she said. “We’ll start with middle school curriculum development, we’ll be creating pathways in high school, so kids can start earning college credits while they’re in high school towards hospitality degrees, we’ll be looking at creating new training programs for all the hospitality workers.”

Ruby said she thinks this is a field more West Virginians should be looking at.

“The hospitality industry is one of the only ones where you can start at the very bottom and move all the way up to the top,” she said. “A quarter of these jobs are going to be management level jobs. They’re going to be six figure salaries. Those are the types of things that we need to be telling kids and other West Virginians who are looking for employment, that this is an industry that’s growing, this is an exciting industry.”