West Virginia has long been known as Wild and Wonderful and Almost Heaven. This rings true not only to her residents, but also to the many visitors who travel through the Mountain State each year. Just last year, 65.5 million visitors traveled through our state. These visitors racked up $4.6 billion in traveler spending and participated in 16.5 million overnight trips and 49 million day trips.
Unfortunately, it seems like those travel statistics come for a time long ago as the COVID-19 pandemic has left our hospitality and tourism industries without guests, visitors and customers for a large portion of this year. Restaurants, hotels and travel attractions alike have been some of the hardest hit industries in 2020. The pandemic has sent a shockwave across the world, and it has hit us right here at home.
During the pandemic, West Virginia has lost more than guests and tourism revenue – we’ve also seen staggering job losses. Last year, the tourism industry supported 45,400 jobs according to the West Virginia Tourism Office. By the end of April of this year, West Virginia’s unemployment rate had jumped to 15.2%, an increase of more than nine percentage points from the month prior. WorkForce West Virginia reports that the biggest drop in service jobs came from the leisure and hospitality industry, with a whopping 30,800 jobs lost as of April 2020. That number accounts for nearly half of the 67,800 service-providing sector jobs lost. These jobs are not just your seasonal summer jobs at resorts or winter jobs at your favorite ski slope. These are full-time, good paying jobs at businesses that provide essential services to our communities on a daily basis.
During this time, federal relief packages have provided critical assistance to businesses of all shapes and sizes throughout West Virginia. “PPP” has become a household name as many of West Virginia’s small businesses have turned to the Paycheck Protection Program to continue operations during these trying times. According to the West Virginia SBA District Office, a total of 16,665 West Virginia small businesses have qualified for PPP loans as of June 12, 2020, totaling loan benefits of more than $1.75 billion from the program. This relief has been essential in keeping many of our small businesses afloat. And subsequent passage of the PPP Flexibility Act ensures that people are able to take full advantage of their PPP loans in West Virginia, as beneficiaries can now spend their loans over a longer period of time and on a broader array of business-related expenses than was previously permitted.
During the pandemic, we have witnessed businesses throughout the tourism industry find creative ways to operate as best they can. As many citizens have taken advantage of expanded take-out and delivery options– including beer and wine! –from their favorite dine-in spots, others have become accustomed to curb side pick-up options from their favorite purveyors. Other businesses have taken this opportunity to reinvigorate their dinning rooms, kitchens, hotel rooms and other amenities – like Deno Stanley of Adelphia Sports Bar & Grille, who blogged about his COVID-19 experiences here. Many tourism businesses have also taken the time to get creative with new menu items, cocktails and other services.
Just as the sun eventually rises over West Virginia’s countless hills and mountains, a bright spot is starting to come through in our tourism industry as the state slowly, surely and safely begins the reopening process. While we are certainly still operating in uncharted waters, West Virginia now seems poised for a tourism boom as we seek to welcome visitors and residents to once again explore our beautiful state. West Virginia is made for outdoor adventures, social distancing, and warm hospitality – a recipe for post-pandemic economic success.
In time, reopening will be the perfect opportunity for West Virginians and out of state residents alike to explore a new part of the state, try a new restaurant, go on a new adventure, and relax at new property. As is our tradition, we will continue to support our neighbors and welcome guests while making wild and wonderful memories with our loved ones.