By Noelle Harris, Greg Madia and Augustus Willis - Mountaineer News Service

With its majestic mountains and raging rivers, West Virginia has become a growing tourist destination. People in the know travel to the Mountain State to brave its whitewater rapids, climb its challenging cliffs, ski, ride horses and just generally enjoy the state’s bluegrass music and many scenic overlooks.

Indeed, over the past 20 years, the state of West Virginia has raked in about $500 billion in revenues from tourism. Yet for most Americans, West Virginia’s natural charms are a well-kept secret. When they think of the Mountain State, many think of Appalachian poverty, not the New River Gorge, where whitewater rafting, rock climbing and scenic views make Fayetteville a prime tourist destination.

According to some in the tourism industry, state officials are not doing enough to change that perception. West Virginia spends far less than many other states to lure tourists, and a few months ago, the state’s already paltry budget for tourism marketing was cut from $3 million to $1 million. Even though state officials recently announced that they were going to restore $1.2 million in aid for marketing, local tourism officials say that amount is a drop in the bucket compared to what other states spend to market their attractions.

A man rock climbs in the New River Gorge“It’s the absolute worst possible time [to cut funding],” says Dave Arnold, a founder of Adventures on the Gorge in southern West Virginia, and a member of the state tourism commission. “Here we are recovering from the [Charleston-area chemical] spill and we should be putting the pedal to metal. We should be spending a lot of money in our markets, saying come to West Virginia and play.”

For the past several years, the state budget has allocated about $3 million for advertising. This year, it will allocate about $2.3 million. By contrast, states like Michigan are planning to spend $25 million this year on tourism marketing efforts. According to one news report, Maryland keeps $6 million in an annual tourism development fund, and Ohio gets at least $5 million a year for marketing purposes.

Despite the dearth of government support, tourism represents about 10 percent of West Virginia’s revenues. Slightly more than half of that total revenue comes from gaming. Casinos in Charleston, Wheeling and the Eastern panhandle attract many visitors who travel to the state just for the day to gamble. According to a study by the West Virginia Division of Tourism, more than 22 percent of daily visitors to the state visited a casino.

However, West Virginia’s casinos are facing increasing competition from new casinos in neighboring states like Maryland and Ohio.

“For many years we were the only players, the only game in town,” Arnold says. “Ohio came here to gamble, Maryland came here to gamble, Pennsylvania came here to gamble. Those days…are over.”

As a result, gaming revenue has decreased from $20 to $11 million in the last three years. With gaming revenue down, the state has less money in its coffers to spend on marketing. State tourism officials say the budget cutbacks this year are forcing them to do less advertising and more public relations work. For example, West Virginia Division of Tourism Commissioner Betty Carver says she is working to interest travel writers in the region in doing stories on tourism hot spots in West Virginia.

“With the limitations on those funds, we are having to be more creative with our dollars,” said Carver.

The state is renewing its Tourism Development Act, which is designed to encourage investment in state tourism. The measure provides a 25 to 35 percent sales credit for tourism businesses that turn a profit in 10 years. However, the tax credit benefits only large tourism businesses, like Adventures on the Gorge and the Oglebay Resort and Conference Center in Wheeling. It requires a $10,000 buy-in to the program, so it is nearly impossible for small, up-and-coming businesses to benefit from it, according to Todd Hooker, senior manager of financial programs and national accounts with the West Virginia Development Office.

Some tourism officials feel that the state should do more to support the growing industry, especially with coal becoming part of the past and natural gas prices still too low to bring in significant revenue. As Arnold notes, tourism can bring in significant revenue without the heavy costs to West Virginia’s environment and roads created by extracting fossil fuels.

“Quite honestly, we impact the overall state image,” Carver says. “Many people come here to enjoy what we offer in the tourism industry, and that’s when they begin thinking, maybe I’d like to go school here, maybe I want to live here or start a business here. If we introduce them to our state, it could benefit us all in the long run.”

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This story was reported for the Mountaineer News Service of West Virginia University. It is reprinted with permission here.

Photo: ClimberJAK/Shutterstock