Tourism: Tout state’s beauty to boost economy

Wild, wonderful West Virginia is known to many in this part of the country as a state of unparalleled natural beauty, and nearly unlimited potential for outdoor activities, in all seasons.

Despite that incredible gift, it seems as though the message is not getting much farther than the mountains and rivers that surround us.

According to state Division of Natural Resources numbers from 2016, the whitewater rafting industry in the Mountain State actually saw a 2.3 percent decline over the previous year; and in fact it along with other travel and leisure industries in the state, have never quite recovered from the nationwide tourism downturn that followed the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.

For whitewater rafting in West Virginia, the good ole days were the mid 1990s — a peak 257,000 visitors came thrill-seeking in 1995.

What a shame.

Sure, we can wait for one of the Mountain State’s native sons or daughters to return and build a Dollywood-style park here — Paisleywood, a music-themed park nestled in Brad Paisley’s Marshall County? Randywood, a sports-themed park in Randy Moss’s old stomping grounds of Kanawha or Cabell counties? Harveywood, a comedy-themed park in Steve Harvey’s native McDowell County?

But we might be waiting a while.

Meanwhile, assets such as our glorious rivers — though they managed to attract a mere131,028 visitors last year — are already here. So are winter sports resorts; ATV, mountain bike and horseback trails; hiking trails; lakes and rivers for watersports; rock formations and caves to climb and explore; forests in which to hunt, camp or even zipline. There is gem mining, golf, even a little spot in Calhoun County that is so free of light pollution it has become a “dark sky” destination for astronomers and stargazers.

West Virginia is within reasonable driving distance for more than half the population of the U.S., though, of course, travelers from farther afield do not have to work too hard to get here by plane. There are outdoor adventures here rivaling any in the U.S., and prices that blow most other popular spots out of the water. This is the kind of stuff that should be shouted from the mountain tops, and bringing in visitors by the millions.

Travel and recreation will be an important part of the transitioning economy that brings more revenue into West Virginia. While the new regime at the Division of Tourism gets its marching orders from a governor with more than just a passing interest in attracting new visitors to the state, the rest of us can do a little work of our own. Spread the word. The Mountain State and all its wonders can longer afford to remain its own little secret.