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Southwest Virginia reached a milestone in tourism last year, and the numbers confirm that the City of Galax made the top of the list for bringing in more visitors from around the world.
Traveler spending in Galax increased 71 percent between 2004 and 2012.
Last year, the Southwest Virginia region generated more than $927 million in travel expenditures, according to an announcement made at the 2013 Southwest Virginia Creative Economy Conference on Sept. 20.
The Virginia Tourism Corporation’s 2012 Economic Impact Report states that the region saw a 43 percent increase in total expenditures for the region since 2004.
At the same time, the commonwealth as a whole has seen a 41 percent increase in tourism revenue, putting the region and the city above the state average.
When breaking down the numbers, Galax tops the list of localities for travel expenditure growth with a 71 percent increase. The city was followed by Floyd County, with a 55 percent increase.
The percentage growth of travel expenditures for several of the localities that make up this region were among the highest in Virginia, according to a state news release.
Over the eight-year period, the Southwest Virginia region saw a 28 percent increase in local tax revenue from travel, totaling $22.5 million last year, the release said.
Galax tourism director Ray Kohl knew that tourism had increased in the area, but said that he was pleasantly surprised to see such high numbers. What tipped him off that tourism was improving was the variety of people he’d met over the past year just through the city’s visitor center. “We are seeing a lot more visitors from out of the country, and different states. We’ve now had visitors from 49 states — we are only missing North Dakota,” he told The Gazette.
Overseas visitors to the city this year have ranged from Australia to Bulgaria, and Kohl added that he’s seen an increased number of visitors flying in from Germany.
In previous years, Kohl said Galax had visitors from about 38 states, a number that skyrocketed as new attractions have been introduced.
“It’s all a matter of promoting the area and welcoming the people,” he said when asked about the improvements.
Bus tours that began earlier this year have given tourists even more of an opportunity to venture to and learn more about the area. So far, he has led 13 busloads of tourists on walking tours to visit some of the major hot-spots of downtown Galax, such as Chestnut Creek School of the Arts, Barr’s Fiddle Shop and The Rex Theater; followed by lunch at The Galax Smokehouse. Tourists also tend to deviate from the itinerary to shop at several local businesses that they pass along the tour. The buses then carry the crowds to other key attractions, like the Blue Ridge Music Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway. “I think we can double the number [of tours] in the future with a little more promotion,” Kohl said.
There are several other marketing efforts made each year to increase tourism. Every year, ads are placed in major city newspapers advertising local attractions, which have continued to yield a number of leads. In response to these ads, around 10,000 brochures were requested to be sent to areas all over the country, Kohl said.
Areas overseas commonly hear about local music, art and events through radio station WBRF-98.1 FM, which is broadcast online and caught by listeners from all over the world.
Natural parks, walking and biking trails and festivals like Smoke on the Mountain and The Old Fiddlers’ Convention also draw travel writers to the area, who come from all over to document and write about their experiences.
While plenty is done to bring first-time visitors to the area, the quality is what continues to bring them back to Galax, Kohl said. A comment book is kept at the Galax Visitor Center, where tourists have a chance to leave feedback about their visits. “The biggest thing [visitors] like is the cleanliness of the town, and the friendliness of the people. Everyone always says how friendly and helpful everyone is,” Kohl said.
Although autumn used to be the city’s peak for tourism, this year saw more summer visitors because of the increase in festivals and the increased interest in spending vacation time here. “Different events downtown bring in a large amount of visitors,” Kohl confirmed, naming well-known celebrations like Galax Leaf & String Festival and Smoke on the Mountain, the state’s official barbecue cook-off.
“But we’re seeing more visitors at non-festival times during the summer. We’ve seen an increase in marketing for the jams that go on throughout the area, and we have good lodging — cabins, bed-and-breakfasts — that advertise events and shops for the public.”
Although the area is known for its bluegrass roots, visitors continue to find new aspects of local culture each time they visit. “Visitors are impressed by what all we offer. Some have said that they always thought of Galax as a place that only had music, but now they’re seeing things like the outdoor recreational aspects and local art. There is a lot more to do here,” Kohl said.
The state as a whole this year received enough visitors to generate $21.2 billion in revenue from tourism last year, a 4 percent increase from 2011 and a record high for the commonwealth, According to an announcement from the office of Governor Bob McDonnell.
The governor also stated that tourism in Virginia supported 210,000 jobs over the year, and provided more than $1.36 billion in state and local taxes.