BECKLEY, WV (WVNS)– Governor Jim Justice and tourism leaders from around West Virginia on Thursday, September 15, 2022, celebrated a new finding from yearly economic impact research.

Data from 2021 showed tourists spent more than $4.9 billion in the state during the year, which is almost four percent higher than in 2019, before the pandemic. Reliance on tourism spending is a cornerstone of the governor’s proposed tax plan, and the data shows the state’s tourism industry is thriving, even when national tourism dipped by 27 percent in 2021.

“During the pandemic, you know, travel trends kind of changed with people wanting to be outdoors,” said Lisa Strader, director of Visit Southern West Virginia, which promotes tourism in the region. “They wanted small towns, they wanted less population, less crowds, you know, and they wanted parks.”

Southern West Virginia’s New River Gorge National Park and Preserve was named a national park in 2020, but the state’s report showed growth in all nine travel regions. Visitors spent $723 million, an increase of 44 percent since 2019.

The City of Beckley officials had braced for a loss during the pandemic but later reported a $300,000 increase in B&O taxes and $500,000 in collections from the citywide one percent sales tax.

City treasurer Billie Trump said the municipality had seen a growth in business but added tourism was also a factor.

“With the new national parks, we’ve seen a huge uptick in visitors to the (Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine) and all the other attractions that we’re familiar with,” said Trump.

Strader said the trend is likely to continue because 86 percent of first-time tourists return to West Virginia. They also promote the state on social media and to friends and family. She added the New River Gorge is set to draw more international visitors now that it’s considered a national park and pandemic restrictions have mostly been lifted.

“We are going to be on a very good path,” she noted. “We want to make sure these people have a good time here, and a good experience.”