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SWVA's $1 billion tourism industry

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Travelers spending more than ever before while exploring scenic beauty, history and culture

Staff Report

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A 56 percent increase in tourism spending in Southwest Virginia since 2004 is highlighted in new report by the Southwest Virginia Cultural Heritage Foundation and the Friends of Southwest Virginia.

The annual report for 2017 outlines the regional economic impact of the tourism economy and spotlights economic, community and tourism development initiatives, regional marketing and branding.

The region includes 19 counties, four independent cities and 54 towns located on the southern and western border of Virginia, including the City of Galax and Carroll and Grayson counties.

The organizations report that a study from the U.S. Travel Association and Virginia Tourism Corporation shows that tourism spending in the region has grown by $363 million from 2004 to 2016, the most recent year that statistics are available.

Tourism impact throughout the region exceeded $1 billion for the first time in history. In comparison, tourism expenditures were only $648.9 million in 2004.

Local tax revenues have increased by 46.5 percent and state tax revenues by 41.1 percent during the same period.

The upward trend in travel-related tax revenues has an impact at the local level through increasing meals and lodging tax revenues in the region’s towns, the organizations said in a news release.

Overall employment in Southwest Virginia has dropped by 2.3 percent since 2001, but employment in the leisure and hospitality industry sector has increased by 14 percent.

“The work of the Foundation and Friends is truly a collaborative of the incredible leadership of our counties, cities and towns that are innovating their business ecosystem through the creative economy,” said Chris Cannon, executive director.

The region’s 8,600 square miles — more than one-fifth of Virginia’s total — is located along mountain ridges and in fertile valleys with two national parks, nine state parks and more than a thousand square miles of national and state forests. The region is filled with innovators, artists and musicians.

To capitalize on cultural and natural assets and in response to rapidly declining employment in Southwest Virginia’s historically prominent industries of farming, mining, and manufacturing, leaders began to invest in developing the creative economy in the mid-2000s.

The Southwest Virginia Cultural Heritage Foundation was established in 2008 by the Virginia General Assembly to lead development of a creative local economy through cultural and natural assets.

Through the non-profit Friends of Southwest Virginia, the regional team works as one organization to help localities, non-profits and entrepreneurs mobilize and succeed.

Partner organizations include The Crooked Road: Virginia’s Music Heritage Trail and ‘Round the Mountain Artisan Network along with support from the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development.

The complex nature of this model of public and private partnership reflects the complex economic issues tackled by the organization.

From the arts and music of the region to the natural assets utilized through tourism, work is revolutionizing the region’s rural economic development system and providing thousands of new jobs through small business, the organizations said in a news release.

In addition to the significant increase in overall tourism impact, the report details current developments underway to increase future economic impact.

“Several years ago, visionaries across the region saw the potential of creative economy development using our natural assets — our unrivaled mountains, rivers, lakes, streams and fields,” Cannon said.

Since 2014, the Southwest Virginia outdoors initiative has recruited millions of dollars in grant funding to develop tourism around eight anchor areas: Blue Ridge Parkway, Mount Rogers, New River, Appalachian Trail, Daniel Boone Wilderness Trail, Clinch River, Breaks Interstate Park and High Knob.

Planning and construction projects are underway to enhance and develop key natural assets. From the future construction of a new parking lot for Devil’s Bathtub in Scott County and a river destination center in Giles County, to master planning for the High Knob region, the projects will improve tourism through access to regional assets, the report said.

Funding partners in the 16 development projects touching all of Southwest Virginia include the Commonwealth of Virginia, Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission, Appalachian Regional Commission, U.S. Economic Development Administration, Virginia Tourism Corporation and several private foundations.

The organizations also provide destination marketing.

“Our social media following has exploded, but look for an increased presence across all digital platforms in 2018 as we improve and expand our marketing initiatives to share Southwest Virginia with the world,“ said Jenna Wagner, director of marketing.

To view the full annual report, visit issuu.com/southwestvirginia/docs/swva_annual_report_2017_final. For other information, visit myswva.org.