Tourism ranks among the commonwealth’s top industries and was one of the hardest hit during COVID-19. We asked Rita McClenny, president and CEO of Virginia Tourism Corp., about the state of the industry as we emerge from the pandemic. McClenny has led the agency since 2012 and previously was director of the Virginia Film Office.
Before the pandemic, Virginia’s tourism industry grew for 10 years in a row. What will 2020’s numbers look like, and what is the forecast for this year?
Travel is a critically important sector of Virginia’s overall economy, and is an instant revenue generator for the commonwealth. In 2019, Virginia’s domestic travel industry generated $27 billion in visitor spending and supported 237,000 jobs. The tourism industry also provided $1.8 billion in state and local revenue. Prior to the pandemic, Virginia’s travel industry demonstrated continued growth 10 years in a row with a compound annual growth rate of 3.9%.
Our travel industry was one of the hardest-hit industries during the pandemic. Our preliminary estimates suggest that travelers spent only $17 billion in 2020 — which is a 37%, or $10 billion, decline compared to 2019. During the worst of the pandemic, we saw visitor spending down as much as 82% relative to the same month in 2019.
Looking ahead to 2021, we are expecting the visitor spending decline to be between 20% to 25%. Though with widespread vaccinations and the governor’s reopening measures, we expect that expenditures will continue to improve as we head into our busiest time of year.
What parts of the tourism industry have been most hard hit during the pandemic?
When we look at employment by industry, the leisure and hospitality sector has been the No. 1 most impacted sector in Virginia for employment losses, by orders of magnitude above other industries since the onset of the pandemic — and the gap remains large.
The No. 2 most negatively impacted sector has been local government. Unfortunately, it has been too easy to follow this story through our data; declines in visitation and visitor spending have directly eroded local tax revenues — which have led to local government job losses as these reduced revenues flow through to local budgets.
We’ve seen declines as much as 20% to 30% in annual local excise tax collections for the fiscal year that ended in June 2020, even though that data only covers the initial period of the pandemic.
Beyond straining essential services and critical employment such as police and firefighters, reduced local government budgets will constrain the ability of local governments and destinations to tell and promote their stories as the recovery grows stronger.
Virginia is among the most visited states in the nation. What are among the most popular destinations?
Virginia ranks eighth in domestic travel spending, and is one of the most popular destinations in the nation for domestic and international visitors. The commonwealth is an easily accessible destination, within a day’s drive of 47% of the U.S. population and boasts nine commercial passenger airports, including four international airports.
Virginia’s diversity of people, places and experiences also makes it an ideal destination for visitors. From the coast to the cliffs, Virginia boasts historically significant attractions, beautiful outdoor vistas, exciting culinary offerings, and world-class arts and culture.
Some of Virginia’s top attractions include the Blue Ridge Parkway, Luray Caverns, Shenandoah National Park, Skyline Drive, Monticello, Kings Dominion, Mount Vernon, Busch Gardens, Colonial Williamsburg, and our beautiful cities and towns dotted across the commonwealth.
Virginia also is home to more than 300 wineries, 250 craft breweries and cideries, eight oyster regions, and countless award-winning chefs and restaurants. We also have the Birthplace of Country Music and a 300-mile Crooked Road Music Heritage Trail, which is truly sacred ground for country music fans.
Outdoor enthusiasts will enjoy our 36 state parks for camping, hiking and outdoor recreation, while our 3,000 miles of scenic roadways take travelers to coastal beauty, mountain vistas, quaint small towns and peaceful countryside. All told, it’s easy to see why Virginia is for Lovers.
Do you expect the pandemic to cause that list to change?
Virginia’s destinations and attractions have remained resilient during the pandemic and continue to do so as we look ahead to recovery. The entire tourism industry has had to pivot and think outside the box in terms of how to meet traveler needs in a postpandemic world, and I think Virginia has done this with incredible innovation and creativity. Because of this, our iconic destinations will remain cherished visitor favorites for generations to come.
Global travel restrictions certainly are reducing the number of international tourists who visit Virginia. From where do you expect most of Virginia’s tourists to come this year?
As travelers are eager to safely explore the world again and visit friends and family, road trips are king. Geographically, Virginia is ideally situated as an easily accessible destination within a short drive from much of the U.S. population. Car travel is by far the preferred way of vacationing right now, with interest beating air travel by double digits.
That’s a huge shift from 2019. Virginia will continue to be a popular driving destination, as we anticipate the resurgence of road trips to continue. Currently, our target markets include Virginia; Washington, D.C.; Raleigh/Greensboro, N.C.; Baltimore; New York City and Philadelphia. We’re also seeing a big uptick in travel from Charlotte, N.C.; Atlanta; Pittsburgh; Harrisburg, Pa.; Cleveland; and upstate South Carolina.
What is Virginia doing to spur tourism as we emerge from the pandemic?
Tourism will be key to economic recovery as the pandemic stabilizes. As travelers immediately inject cash back into communities, Virginia aims to restore the tourism economy into the vibrant and highly performing economic engine it always has been. By promoting responsible tourism, innovative product development and community cooperation, the tourism industry will return to its previous economic vitality as an instant revenue generator.
The Virginia is for Lovers brand is highly recognizable and will resonate with leisure travelers, meeting planners, group tours and those seeking the abundant travel assets the state has to offer. Marketing the Virginia is for Lovers brand will be vitally important to bringing back travelers who have retreated due to the health crisis. Virginia Tourism — and the power of the Virginia is for Lovers brand — can help do that.
How does your message to potential tourists differ from that of 2019?
While our world looks quite different today than it did prepandemic, our strongest message and call to action remains the same: Virginia is for Lovers.
Virginia is for Lovers is one of the most iconic and recognizable travel brands in the world. Using that powerful brand equity, we will continue to promote the commonwealth as a premier travel destination by showcasing all there is to love in a Virginia vacation.
The dollars spent by travelers fuel the economy, provide jobs for Virginians and improve communities across the state. Simply put, tourism helps make Virginia a great place to live, work and visit.
We will continue to market the commonwealth as a great road trip destination and highlight low-risk experiences, while also encouraging new travelers to come discover all of the amazing things Virginia has to offer for their next vacation.