HARRISONBURG — Over $231 million of Rockingham County revenue was generated by tourism in 2018, an increase of 6.1% from 2017 and the most money generated in a Shenandoah Valley locality, according to data from the United States Travel Association.
Every locality in the Commonwealth saw an increase in tourism last year, resulting in $26 billion in travel spending combined across the state.
“I think we’re just very fortunate that Rockingham was the top spot,” said Joshua Gooden, tourism and economic development coordinator for Rockingham County. “But also looking at all the numbers throughout the Valley and seeing how important tourism is for everywhere.”
Nearly 2,200 jobs were directly supported by tourism in Rockingham County last year, an increase of about 60 jobs from 2017.
To help continue growth in the tourism sector, representatives from localities throughout the Shenandoah Valley from Clarke to Rockbridge meet once a month, typically in Harrisonburg, to discuss ongoing projects and best practices to draw visitors in.
“The visitors that come to Massanutten won’t specifically stay in Rockingham,” Gooden said. “They’re looking to explore what’s going on in the whole community.”
The Shenandoah Spirits Trail is an example of a successful partnership between the localities, said Jenna French, director of tourism and business development for Shenandoah County.
Shenandoah had plenty of vineyards, but Harrisonburg had the breweries.
“So we thought this was a great opportunity to work together,” she said.
Though Rockingham had the highest expenditures, Shenandoah saw the highest revenue raised from taxes through tourism in 2018, French said.
Rockingham collected over $6 million, while Shenandoah brought in more than $6.6 million in taxes related to the tourism industry.
“We were really proud to see strong growth in that area because, of course, the reason we do what we do is to diversify tax revenues for the county,” French said.
Many tourists are drawn to the Valley by the natural attractions like the Shenandoah River, George Washington National Forest, Shenandoah National Park and Luray Caverns.
It’s not just the sights that draw people, but the hiking, canoeing and adventure opportunities that populate the region.
“I think, definitely for our region, we’re starting to realize how much of an outdoor recreation center the Shenandoah Valley is,” Gooden said.
The differences between the localities help to draw tourists into the region, said Liz Lewis, economic development and tourism coordinator for Page County.
“Each of us contribute to different demographics that travels to the Shenandoah Valley,” Lewis said.
Page County’s separation from Interstate 81 is both an advantage and disadvantage for the locality, she said.
“It’s bad for manufacturing, but it’s great for tourism,” Lewis said.
Lewis said the distance from I-81 helps tourists to feel as if they are really getting away from it all.
One of the tourism trends Page County is looking to capitalize on is camping, especially among millenials who are increasingly pitching tents, according to Lewis.
An expensive new hotel isn’t the only way to add lodging to a locality’s revenue stream, Lewis said.
“Page County is proposing a bike park on the landfill in Stanley that’s been closed for several years and adding a camping element to that brings lodging into the town of Stanley,” she said.
There are two main tourism initiatives Shenandoah County is working on, French said.
One is working with landowners, public and private, to expand access to the Shenandoah River.
The other is turning the entire county into a “tourism zone,” which would create incentives for tourism-related businesses, such as breweries.
The zone is based on models used in Front Royal and Waynesboro, French said. It is supported by the Virginia Tourism Corp., a state body tasked with growing tourism in the Commonwealth.
Including the whole county was important to crafting the zone, she said.
“We worried that if we limited the zone just to the towns or specific areas, we would really miss out on some opportunities in the growing agritourism market that we’ve seen,” French said.
The Shenandoah County Board of Supervisors would have to support the motion before it would take effect.
French said she estimates the economic development and tourism office to be able to present the plan to the supervisors this year or in early 2020.
Ongoing Rockingham County projects include making a tourism video for digital campaigns and a combined guidebook with the city, Gooden said.
“We always say visitors don’t see boundaries,” French said.