West By-New Virginia

By Andreas Weissenborn, Destinations International

As part of the "great acceleration," West Virginia is setting up a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to compete at the world stage in the next normal.

West Virginia is having a moment. Prior to the pandemic, I am not sure if many inside or outside the mountain state would expect it to be in the media as much as it has been with such a positive light. Certainly, Governor Justice has been on our radar before, as he was a frequent top-ranked official on our original lexicon discoveries when we wanted to see which governors talked positively about tourism and destination promotion across their public (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube etc.) channels. To no surprise, you expect no less from a tourism envoy for his state, albeit with shared interests as the owner of one of the most historical and prestigious resorts in America, The Greenbriar. Still, he has walked the walk and frequently funded tourism for his state, advanced initiatives around tourism, and never misses a good media opportunity to showcase his marketing chops (more on that later). As part of the great acceleration series, I want to dive into this moment that has occurred for the state of West Virginia, that because of the pandemic we have sped up a new timeline they were not previously on. In our next normal, West Virginia might just be the destination we all have to compete with.

To talk about the future, we must talk about the past and West Virginia by in large has almost always done its own thing. Seceding from the confederacy, early to support women’s suffrage, and a near-constant battle of its borders, that continues to its day. Even, it’s tagline, wild and wonderful is equally shared with its adopted one, West By-God Virginia. Fast-forwarding into our pandemic timeline, West Virginia has stood apart from the rest for a few reasons. It became the last state to report a COVID19 case and on the other end became one of the fastest adopting states of getting vaccinated. In our highly partisan government, a West Virginian has become one of the most important figures in US politics and bringing continued attention to the state. All of these set the stage for an oft-forgotten state to indulge in this accelerated time-period and come out the other side ahead and make strides which normally would have taken decades. Let us talk through some of the ways they can make the most of it.

Governor Tourism Envoy

Governor Justice in the public eye is no stranger to putting tourism first in both his messaging and policy. Monitor any of his social media channels and you’ll find plenty of dedicated press conferences and appearances talking and supporting destination promotion, more importantly, funding it! His state will benefit from these investments, we know the halo effect, we know the economic engine, and we know the quality of place, this state is now poised to welcome more visitors and new residents not yet seen during our pandemic timeline. These efforts will showcase the state to new visits, but I believe it is these next initiatives that can make them stay.

Wide Open Spaces

Our extended time indoors and away from others has heightened our needs for access and availability of quality green space. Destinations have pivoted their marketing to showcase their socially distant spaces to the masses but West Virginia has this already in spades. From an early study from 2000, West Virginia is the third most forested state in the nation. In addition to space, it is also quiet with one of the only National Radio Quiet Zones in the country. Providing a unique throwback experience of yesteryear without the digital distractions in our modern world. If you want to get away and feel part of nature, West Virginia has it au naturel.

If you cut it, they will come?

Finally and most recently, is the governors current initiative to cut the personal income tax of every resident with a 60% reduction at year one. This is a bold move but one I do believe could work in conjunction with my two prior points. Many of us are realizing we no longer have to live near where we work once this pandemic ends and the decision then becomes where do we move that is based upon our lifestyle and not workstyle. Looking at the surrounding heavy tax states (MD, VA, DC), all it might take is a pandemic road trip to the mountain state to make some of these mid-Atlantic visitors turn their trip into their new home. Especially those looking for more space to buy a home that would go further in West Virginia than their current circumstances. Similar states such as Florida and Texas have administered similar plans with success and West Virginia might be able to recreate that in the Appalachia.

Justice, who is not without controversy, has the potential to lift up the state not seen since a Rockefeller governed the state through an equally tumultuous time in the late 1970s.  Certainly, reduced taxes might bring in new residents in the beginning, but I would hope West Virginia would not stop there. Continue to invest in other common goods surrounding education, infrastructure, broadband, and other necessities and we might see record population growth in the next normal.

Governor Justice must be reading Jack Johnson’s writing because he too fully understands this limited window to make this happen. “We may never have an opportunity like this ever again,” Gov. Justice said. “Because of how we’ve handled the COVID-19 pandemic – how we’ve saved lives, had the best vaccine program in the nation, and kept our economy on the move – the spotlight of the world is on West Virginia right now. This is the time to seize our opportunity!

About the Author

Andreas WeissenbornVice President of Research and AdvocacyDestinations International

About the Author

Introduced to the industry by a random internship application to Visit Baltimore, Andreas began an unexpected career that left him with a continued passion towards tourism. He leads the research and advocacy efforts of the entire organization with an eye towards developing data-driven tools to help destinations around the world tell their story.

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