Bad decision on tourism budget by West Virginia

At the Convention and Visitors Bureau, travel and tourism is our business and we love to promote attractions and seasonal events to our local audience as well as potential visitors. In future columns I will highlight upcoming events and talk about some of the attractions that bring visitors to our area.

Today, however, I want to talk about the devastating blow to tourism that has been dealt by the West Virginia Legislature. The West Virginia House of Delegates and West Virginia Senate have agreed to a budget that will slash the advertising and marketing budget for the WV Division of Tourism by 67 percent, from a proposed budget of $7.42 million to a budget of $2.42 million. It is a terrible decision.

West Virginia is in a competition for visitors and dollars with other states, as well as with destinations like Pigeon Forge and Myrtle Beach, whose marketing budgets already dwarf ours by comparison. Spending by the State Division of Tourism creates essential top-of-mind awareness of West Virginia as a potential vacation destination. That top-of-mind awareness is absolutely necessary to help level the playing field, and fundamental to our CVB marketing efforts as the base that we build on to promote our own area.

In 2009, Longwoods International, a highly respected and nationally recognized tourism research company, produced an in-depth study of what happens when you gut a state tourism budget. They looked at what happened when the state of Colorado went from spending $12 million a year on Tourism Advertising in 1993 to $0 in 1994. Here’s a spoiler – it didn’t turn out well, it cost Colorado billions of dollars of revenue, and it took them twenty years to recover.

Everyone knows and agrees that we must diversify our economy in West Virginia. Of all of the possible areas of diversification poised for success, tourism is the most “shovel ready.” All we lack is sufficient funding to get the word out. In our area, we already have great historical attractions like Blennerhassett Island and Henderson Hall. As a state, we have a tremendous state park system, the best whitewater rafting in America and the best skiing south of New England. We have all of this, and only lack the megaphone to let people know we are here and to overcome the negative stereotypes that create hesitation in potential visitors.

Increased spending on tourism is an investment that has been proven in study after study to generate significant returns in jobs, profits and tax revenue. In addition to these tangible monetary benefits, research has shown that tourism advertising creates a “halo” effect. It improves the image of West Virginia as a place to live, a place to go to college, or a place to retire. And, perhaps most importantly, it can help promote West Virginia as a destination for an individual searching for a place to start a business, or a company looking for a location for an expansion or additional facility.

All of this information was provided to our legislators. Their decision: slash funding for tourism marketing by 67 percent. I’m glad that there were no geese running around the capitol laying golden eggs this past session. Surely, our short-sighted legislature would have killed them quickly.

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Mark Lewis is president and CEO of the Greater Parkersburg Convention and Visitors Bureau.

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