WINCHESTER — Tourism remained steady in the midst of a global pandemic, according to industry leaders in the region.
Speaking during the Shenandoah Valley Tourism Partnership’s annual meeting Thursday morning, members of the partnership broke down different aspects of tourism and its economic impact on the region during 2020.
“Our marketing programs have been going forward to maintain and expand our industry’s relevance as an economic driver in the Virginia economy,” said Rita McClenny, Virginia Tourism Commission president and CEO. “I think now certainly more than ever every official, every elected person, everyone who is looking at the revenue generated by our industry, having witnessed the change and the decrease, certainly understand the importance of the revenue that has been generated by travelers in all of our jurisdictions.”
The goal has continued to be to inspire, increase consideration of Virginia and the awareness of our travel products, she said.
McClenny said visitors have been spending time outdoors, going on scenic drives, visiting attractions that are open and planning future travel. She said the Shenandoah Valley is uniquely positioned to have success in these aspects, even during a pandemic.
This was further evidenced when Patrick Kenney, superintendent of Shenandoah National Park, announced that the park had logged record visitation in 2020 despite being closed for six weeks due to COVID-19.
“I never would have guessed that we would be here today talking about experiencing a record visitation year in Shenandoah National Park during the year of a pandemic,” said Kenney, who took over as park superintendent in August after working at Yellowstone National Park.
Kenney said the park logged 1.6 million recreational visits in 2020. October, which is the typical peak month, experienced a 52% increase in visitation from 2019.
For reference, Kenney said the park generated about $95 million in 2019 with 1.4 million visitors.
Justin Kerns, executive director of the Winchester-Frederick County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said that’s just one example of how tourism positively impacts the Shenandoah Valley.
Kerns said that in two hours, even with “pandemic-adjusted numbers,” visitors will have spent almost $269,000 in the Shenandoah Valley.
He noted that Shenandoah Valley households would have to pay about $575 more each year in taxes to make up for lost tourism dollars.
In 2019, Kerns said there was $1.57 billion in direct tourism spending in the Shenandoah Valley, which comes out to about $4.3 million a day. Additionally, there was about $45.8 million in local tax money generated, or about $125,000 a day, as well as $67.5 million in annual state taxes.That equates to about 14,000 full-time jobs and over $300 million in payroll.
Kerns said those numbers were only down about 25% year-over-year in 2020.
“That’s fantastic to hear when you put it in the frame of a global pandemic and how horribly some of our peers and other larger markets were hit,” he said. “We’re very, very fortunate to have seen only that impact.”
Jenna French, Shenandoah County’s director of Tourism and Economic Development, shared details about marketing campaigns that have helped attract tourists to the area.
French and her staff, along with multiple marketing partners along the way, worked on videos, articles and advertisements geared toward bringing folks from the Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C., area to the valley.
She said that communication between municipalities and businesses can help fuel these projects.
“If we don’t know what’s happening at your business, we don’t know to pass that along,” French said.
Eric Terry, president of the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging, and Travel Association, said he was optimistic about what 2021 will bring.
“We are seeing some opportunistic turns in the industry that I think are going to carry forward,” he said. “I also believe Virginia is in a very unique position because we’re such a big drive mark for so much of our tourism dollars. I think that’s going to benefit us.”
Terry also highlighted a few things up for consideration during the General Assembly session, including an extension on to-go alcohol sales that passed through the state Senate on Wednesday; House Bill 1880, which would allow the renewal of the games of skill and allow taxes from those to possibly go to small businesses; House Bill 2158 and Senate Bill 1398, which involves retail sales and transient occupancy taxes on room rentals; and House Bill 1738, which would allow localities to establish up to three outdoor refreshment areas.