by David Beard, The Dominion Post

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Gov. Jim Justice beamed with delight Wednesday as he shared the news that West Virginia’s tourism traveler spending grew in 2017 – the first time since 2012. And it not only grew, but the growth topped the national average.

“It’s phenomenal what is happening right in front of us,” he told the crowd of tourism professionals attending the West Virginia Governor’s Conference on Tourism, held at the event center at the Morgantown Marriott at Waterfront Place.

Starting in 2012, he said, tourism spending started a steady slide, dropping more than 14 percent, from $4.84 billion that year to $4.141 billion in 2016.

It turned around in 2017, hitting $4.302 billion. That marked 3.9 percent growth, 30 percent above the national average growth of 3 percent.

The state still has many challenges, he said. But, “It’s a hell of a lot better than it was a month ago. And a hell of a lot better than it was a year and a half ago. So all we’ve got to do is just keep rolling.”

West Virginia shouldn’t be ashamed of being an extraction state, he said, but we need economic diversification.

He’s long touted tourism as one means to attain that diversification. During the last legislative session, he’d hoped to increase Tourism’s budget from $6 million to $20 million, working under the principle every dollar spent returns $8. The statewide teacher and school employee strike and raise package scotched that plan, but the end-of-year budget surplus allowed the Legislature to allot an additional $2.5 million.

“We ought to explode in this state with tourism,” he said. We have a prime location in easy traveling distance of two-thirds of the nation’s population, four beautiful seasons and abundant resources.

“We’re the pristine. We’re the best of the best of the best. We had to just tell our story.”

The new Almost Heaven campaign, built on John Denver’s famous song, which the state bought the rights to, is playing a role in telling that story, he said. He also credited the leadership of Tourism Commissioner Chelsea Ruby, who’s steering the campaign.

The figures Justice cited came from research performed by Dean Runyan, a national tourism research firm. Senior Project Manager Leon Aliski added some details.

The 2107 spending, Aliski said, averages out to $11.8 million spent per day.

Based on performance during the first six months of 2018, he expects continued spending growth, reaching about $4.5 billion to $4.6 billion by year’s end. Based on the higher figure, that would produce up to $528 million in state and local tax revenue and up to 46,000 jobs.

Tourism breaks the state into nine regions. Monongalia, Preston and Marion counties are in Mountaineer Country, which ranked fifth among the regions for 2017 spending. Mountaineer Country brought in $421.7 million. Top-ranked Eastern Panhandle drew $966.4 million.