BUSINESS JOURNAL: Valley Tourism: It’s A Natural
Officials Say More Tourists Coming To Valley To Enjoy Outdoor Attractions
HARRISONBURG — Many people choose to live in the Shenandoah Valley because of its natural beauty.
And, overwhelmingly, nature is often the reason tourists find their way to the area by the tens of thousands every year.
Whether it’s the relatively unchanged scenic attractions — Shenandoah National Park, Skyline Drive, George Washington and Jefferson national forests, Shenandoah River — or the natural assets leveraged by man — two four-season resorts, four show caves, multiple vineyards and hundreds of cabins — Mother Nature provided the Valley with many attractive features.
And changing travel trends are making them more popular than ever.
“The Civil War traveler and the history traveler for years was the No. 1 traveler to our area,” said Brenda Black, Harrisonburg’s tourism manager. “But we’ve seen a change, and I think that’s because we offer more for the visitor than ever before.”
According to data provided by the Virginia Tourism Corp., the central section of the Valley features six attractions that ranked among the Top 25 most frequently visited in the state during fiscal year 2013: the lower Shenandoah Valley section of Skyline Drive, (second, 12 percent), Shenandoah National Park (tied for fourth, 10 percent), Luray Caverns (tied for eighth, 6 percent), the Valley section of the Appalachian Trail (tied for 10th, 5 percent), and the Civil War Trail’s Valley section and Massanutten Resort (both tied for 18th, 4 percent).
The Harrisonburg region ranked third among the most visited cities in the Old Dominion, with 17 percent of those surveyed saying they’d been here. Only Roanoke (26 percent) and Winchester (21 percent) ranked higher.
Visitors to those attractions aren’t just looking around, either. They’re opening their wallets, too.
VTC data indicate that domestic visitors — from vacationers to business travelers to the parents of college students — who trekked 50 miles or more to get to Harrisonburg and Rockingham, Augusta, Page and Shenandoah counties spent an estimated $642 million in the region in 2012, the last year for which data is available.
Those expenditures directly supported 6,180 local jobs and pumped approximately $19.5 million into city and county tax coffers.
“Tourism as a sector in our economy is as important as many of the other sectors we have in this region,” said Billy Vaughn, assistant county administrator for Rockingham County. “They all play a very vital part of having a diverse economy.”
While a family’s destination might be in one locale, that doesn’t mean they’ll stay there the entire time.
Tourists don’t see jurisdictional lines. They go where they want to go.
That’s very evident in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County.
According to data collected by Harrisonburg Tourism and Visitor Services, 45 percent of the people who come into the Hardesty-Higgins House Visitor Center are staying at Massanutten Resort in Rockingham County.
“We’ve always had a tremendous amount of visitation from Massanutten Resort,” Black said. “We do itineraries for Massanutten visitors, help plan their week for them, especially repeat-visitor timeshare owners.”
People visiting Rockingham County often eat in Harrisonburg, and those visiting attractions other than the resort often stay in the city, too.
Only three interstate exits dump travelers into the county, and none has a nationally recognized sit-down restaurant or hotel right at the interchange.
Vaughn said Shenandoah National Park draws about 1.2 million people annually, with Massanutten receiving about 1 million visitors, easily making them Rockingham County’s two biggest attractions.
Grand Caverns attracts people to Grottoes, while many people are drawn to agritourism spots scattered throughout the county.
Rockingham has no visitors’ center, Vaughn said, but it does partner with Harrisonburg on various efforts. The county also provides cooperative advertising dollars to some smaller attractions to help their marketing efforts.
Aside from Massanutten’s guests, the bulk of the people — 40 percent — who drop into Harrisonburg’s visitors center are visiting family, friends or a local university, Black said.
Students and families tend to stop by from James Madison University, while Eastern Mennonite University has more student-only inquiries.
The Great Outdoors
More and more, travelers are seeking ways to enjoy the great outdoors.
“Outdoor recreation is huge,” said Caroline Logan, the Virginia Tourism Corp.’s director of communications.
Black said many people from the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area find their way to Harrisonburg on weekends, using the city as a base as they venture out to parks and forests in the area.
Black’s also working on a new cycling campaign for outdoor adventurers, taking advantage of the local cycling community and others’ interest in biking here.
Page County, which counts Luray Caverns as well as Shenandoah National Park and the Shenandoah River as its top attractions, has taken its outdoorsy feel to the next level, which is important since tourism and agriculture are its two biggest industries.
John Robbins, president of the Luray-Page County Chamber of Commerce, said between 200 and 300 cabins are for rent in the county.
To leverage that asset, which is popular with D.C.-metro residents, Page is being marketed as the cabin capital of Virginia. That campaign includes the website cabincapital.com.
“It’s a big draw,” Robbins said, “and it’s extremely valuable to us. These cabins are well-built, well-maintained, and they offer some spectacular views and diversity of prices and amenities.
“We’re becoming more and more known as a hub for outdoor recreation. We have numerous cycling events, places to canoe and fish, places to rent horses and ride, and the hiking is great in the George Washington National Forest and along the [Luray-Hawksbill Greenway] that runs right through Luray.”
Massanutten and Basye’s Bryce Resort have become much more than winter ski destinations, with year-round activities that include golfing and cycling.
To the south, Natural Chimneys Regional Park and Campground in Mount Solon is a key attraction in the northern part of Augusta County.
The region’s biggest tourist attraction for Civil War buffs, the Virginia Museum of the Civil War-New Market Battlefield State Historical Park, draws visitors 361 days a year.
Nearby, Endless and Shenandoah caverns offer an opportunity to hike and learn about nature underground.
Indoor Draws, Too
Though the outdoors is a major local draw, there’s plenty to do indoors.
The O Shenandoah County Artisan Trail was created to highlight artists in the county, said Jenna French, Shenandoah’s director of tourism and marketing.
The trail also includes retail spots where crafts are sold at restaurants, lodging establishments, agritourism spots and other areas of interest.
The independent city of Staunton is near the heart of Augusta County, and attractions within its limits are the destination for many people who travel into the county.
The American Shakespeare Center, the Frontier Culture Museum and its vibrant downtown are among the major draws.
In Harrisonburg, a campaign is evolving to highlight local restaurants, especially those that use meats, vegetables and fruits from local farms to leverage the locavore movement.
Black said the city is participating in the Fields of Gold campaign, a regional agritourism initiative.
“We’re very, very fortunate in Harrisonburg to have a very global population,” she said, “but we also use our local foods. We want to highlight the restaurants that are infusing local agriculture, working with our farms.”
Contact Vic Bradshaw at 574-6279 or email@example.com