In the late 2000s, the Great Recession, combined with record-high oil prices, led many Americans to not travel great distances or not travel at all. In some cases, people still decided to take vacations and trips, but on a smaller scale, sticking closer to home.
I wanted to find out how this trend affected West Virginia’s public lands, specifically the state’s state parks, state forests and state wildlife management areas as well as the four National Park Service units in the state: Harpers Ferry National Historic Park, New River Gorge National River, Bluestone National Scenic River and Gauley River National Recreation Area.
West Virginia does not charge an entrance fee for its state parks, so it relies on traffic counts to estimate the total number of visitors per fiscal year. The National Park Service has a similar measurement tool, but keeps figures by calendar year. I was also curious about overnight lodging, so I used the most recent fiscal year to see how many people used overnight lodging in state-owned properties, including the number of out-of-state residents using said facilities.
Annual attendance figures were averaged from 2007 the beginning of the Great Recession to the most recent fiscal year to find an average annual increase or decrease in visitors for each property. The data showed that of the 46 state-owned properties, all but five properties had an average annual increase in visitors. However, only one federally owned property had an average annual increase.
Total attendance at West Virginia-owned parks increased every fiscal year from FY2007-08 to the present. Out-of-state visitors made up a majority of cabin rentals and lodge stays for state properties, while state residents comprised most of the camping reservations.
This data could suggest that West Virginia is becoming more recognized as a tourist destination, particularly in regards to the jump in total attendance and the percentage of non-residents that stay overnight in cabins and lodges. State facilities that do not provide overnight lodging also seem to be least favored among prospective visitors. For example, of the five state properties to report a decrease in average annual attendance, three Cathedral S.P., Fairfax Stone S.P. and Droop Mountain Battlefield have no overnight facilities.
In addition, Canaan Valley Resort is influenced by third variables unique to the property. Because the park has a ski area on the property, its visitor numbers are likely influenced by winter conditions. Therefore, if winter conditions are not ideal, or people feel they can get better deals at other privately owned ski resorts nearby, Canaan Valley may not see as many visitors.
There are other ways to break down the data not shown on this graphic, like taking federal overnight lodging numbers into account, or looking at the number of users of specific activities, like rafting or boating, for example (though these numbers may not necessarily be available). Still, the data does suggest a strong future for West Virginia’s state-owned properties.
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