Bring tourist cash to West Virginia

An editorial from The Intelligencer/Wheeling News-Register

WHEELING, W.Va. — With gasoline prices lower and many Americans thinking about road trips, now is the time to attract tourists to West Virginia, right?

Not with budgets the state Tourism Commission has had for the past few years. Officials there had to cut back on spending to market the Mountain State to travelers.

Much of the commission’s funding comes from a state-mandated share of proceeds from West Virginia’s four racetrack-casinos. At one time, that gave officials as much as $9 million a year for marketing programs.

But income from the casinos has plummeted during recent years, to the point that the Tourism Commission has just $2.8 million for tourism advertising and marketing during the current fiscal year.

Less exposure for the state has had consequences. Last August, representatives of the whitewater rafting industry in southern West Virginia told legislators their business has taken a plunge. More than 225,000 people rode rafts on the Gauley and New rivers in 2000 – but by last year, the number was down to about 100,000.

At least some of that decline can be blamed on a drop in state tourism marketing efforts during the same period of time.

The good times may be returning. During their just-ended session, state lawmakers agreed to a plan that will boost Tourism Commission funds to $7 million for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

That infusion of money may come too late to serve as a lifeline for some of the state’s tourism industry this summer. Clearly, commission officials will want to mount a major tourism push for the fall, while preserving funds for promotions next winter and spring, in preparation for summer 2016.

Tourism Commissioner Amy Goodwin, who has Northern Panhandle roots, is still relatively new in the job. Already, she has put forth good ideas for reinvigorating her agency’s campaigns.

The many Mountain State residents whose incomes depend on travel and tourism should expect Goodwin’s efforts to pay off. When they do, that and what happened when tourism promotion efforts were reduced should serve as a lesson for legislators. Next winter, recognizing the importance of tourism to our state, they should consider boosting the marketing budget even more.

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