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Justice, Thrasher spar over tourism numbers

CHARLESTON — Gov. Jim Justice praised the most recent tourism numbers for the state Wednesday, though a Republican primary challenger disputes the rosy outlook.

According to a 2018 Travel Impacts Study conducted by Dean Runyan and Associates, West Virginia’s tourism industry grew by 58 percent when compared to national growth over the last two years.

“It’s an incredible time to be a West Virginian. This state is on the move and so is our tourism industry,” Justice said in a statement. “When I took office, I made tourism a top priority because I knew it had all the potential in the world. All we had to do is find a way to tell our story and we’re finally doing it.”

Spending by travelers to the state grew at 6.5 percent and totaled $4.55 billion in 2018. The national growth rate for 2018 was 4.1 percent. Since Justice took office in January 2017, the growth in traveler spending grew by 9.9 percent. Between 2012 and 2016, spending by travelers decreased by 14 percent.

Justice was quick to praise Tourism Commissioner Chelsea Ruby for the growth.

“We have an absolute superstar in Tourism Commissioner Chelsea Ruby,” Justice said. “I congratulate her and the entire Tourism Commission for all their hard work to help make this growth possible. I am committed to making sure our tourism industry grows for many more years to come.”

On April 11, 2018, the Tourism Office developed a new advertising campaign, “Almost Heaven.” The campaign included new branding focused on West Virginia’s scenic beauty, activities unique to the state, outdoor activities, and the securing of the John Denver classic “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”

“Thanks to Gov. Justice’s leadership, tourism in West Virginia is taking off,” Ruby said in a statement. “We have a brand new Almost Heaven advertising campaign in market, and thanks to the buy-in and support from industry partners across the state, we’re seeing these gains everywhere we look. From economic impact to earned media, West Virginia is quickly becoming a top tourism destination.”

The Tourism Office is an agency in the state Department of Commerce. Ruby’s old boss, former Commerce Department secretary Woody Thrasher, took issue with the tourism numbers released Wednesday.

Thrasher, a businessman and candidate in the Republican primary for governor, cited data from the U.S. Department of Commerce Bureau of Economic Analysis showing decreases in various sectors connected to tourism as it relates to West Virginia’s gross national product. According to BEA, GDP from arts, entertainment and recreation was down by negative .02 percent in the first quarter of 2019 compared to the fourth quarter of 2018. The accommodations and food service category was down by .13 percent during the same time period.

“Things may look rosy at The Greenbrier, but one of our four major ski resorts closed this year,” Thrasher said. “That doesn’t indicate a strong, thriving industry. A full-time governor would be looking at all the available data and indicators to make proactive decisions with long-term, positive effects.”

Thrasher is challenging Justice in the Republican primary along with former Berkeley County delegate Mike Folk.

Steven Allen Adams can be reached at sadams@newsandsentinel.com.

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