Last year, an estimated 318 million visitors traveled to lands managed by the National Park Service (NPS), according to the recently released "2018 National Park Visitor Spending Effects" report.
The report, conducted by economists from both the NPS and the U.S. Geological Service, said those visitors spent an estimated $20.2 billion in local gateway communities, which supported an estimated 329,000 jobs nationwide.
Last year's spending figures were up by $2 billion from the 2017 level and $1.8 billion from the 2016 level.
Regionally, the New River Gorge National River also saw an increase in local gateway spending from $49.9 million in 2017 to $54.7 million last year.
According to the NPS study, there were 1,361,722 park visitors to the Gorge, Bluestone National Scenic River and the Gauley River National Recreation area last year. Visitor spending supported 847 jobs, with a cumulative benefit of nearly $70 million to the local economy.
Much of the spending was concentrated on the New River Gorge National River area, with hotels taking in an estimated $15.3 million and restaurants taking in $12.3 million. Gas spending was estimated at $8.2 million; grocery spending, $8 million; retail spending, $4.3 million; and camping spending, $1.9 million.
While the New River Gorge National River saw increased spending in 2018, the two other regional rivers saw slight decreases.
The Gauley River National Recreation Area saw an estimated 97,800 visitors last year who spent an estimated $4.3 million in the local gateway areas. That figure was down from the $5 million spent during 2016 and 2017.
The Bluestone National Scenic River saw an estimated 31,300 visitors last year who spent an estimated $1.4 million. While that figure maintained the mark from 2017, it was shy of a recent high of $1.6 million spent in 2014.
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“National parks with their iconic natural, cultural and historic landscapes represent the heart and soul of America,” said National Park Service Deputy Director P. Daniel Smith in a news release.
“They are also a vital part of our nation’s economy, especially for park gateway communities where millions of visitors each year find a place to sleep and eat, hire outfitters and guides and make use of other local services that help drive a vibrant tourism and outdoor recreation industry.”
Regional leaders from the park service also highlighted the importance of national lands in drawing in visitors.
“The three national parks of southern West Virginia once again welcomed over 1.3 million visitors from across the country and around the world last year,” said Superintendent Lizzie Watts in a news release. “We are so delighted to share the stories of these incredibly special places with so many people."
Watts said national park tourism is a significant driver in the national economy, returning $10 for every $1 invested in the NPS.
"And certainly it’s a big factor in our local economies as well," she said. "We greatly appreciate our many partnerships and the continued support of our neighbors. We are happy to be a part of helping to sustain so many local communities.”
Local tourism leaders see the national lands as the central draw to bring visitors to the region.
"From a tourism standpoint, I will tell you that it is a very, very big driver for tourism in southern West Virginia," said Lisa Strader, the director of Visit Southern West Virginia. "Not just the New River Gorge, but the Bluestone and the Gauley because of all the recreation opportunities."
Strader told The Register-Herald that her organization has set the national lands as the bases for their travel itineraries and as a gateway to other local attractions.
While Fayette County may be the home to the New River Gorge Bridge and the heart of regional federal lands, Strader said the other areas benefit from the traffic to the national river.
With Beckley serving as a hub, Strader said her organization can direct visitors all over the region to the federal lands, state parks and other local activities.
"Every county offers something very unique, but you can do that in 45 minutes (from Beckley)," Strader said.
The regional tourism director said the requests for information from Visit Southern West Virginia are up from last year, though she added that lodging reservations ahead of time are down.
Strader said she believes people are more likely to wait until the last minute to make their reservations in today's digital age.
While technology may be changing how visitors get to southern West Virginia, Strader believes that it is the area's ample recreation that will draw in the most visitors, with a majority of recreation housed on federal lands.
Strader said, "People love the beauty, they love the history, but everyone wants something to do."
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