Apr. 19—BLUEFIELD — A pandemic made 2020 a rough year for the tourism industry, but spring weather has arrived and tourists eager for outdoor recreation are coming back to Mercer County and the surrounding region.
The Mercer County Convention & Visitors Bureau (MCCVB) recently released an annual report highlighting the positives that took place in 2020 despite COVID-19. The Hatfield-McCoy ATV Trail closed in March 2020, but reopened in May and quickly saw a resurgence in ridership. In late February, Gov. Jim Justice congratulated the Hatfield-McCoy Regional Recreation Authority for a successful season.
In 2020, the Hatfield-McCoy Trail System sold almost 65,000 trail permits, which represented the largest number of annual permits ever sold, and the system's 20th consecutive year of growth in ridership. Permit sales saw a 15 percent increase over 2019 sales despite the pandemic. The trail system had more than 8,500 new riders on the trail system in 2020.
"Certain aspects of tourism definitely increased despite the pandemic," said Jamie Null, executive director of the MCCVB. "Those are outdoor activities, state parks and ATV riding."
The local tourism industry still faces the challenge of lost revenues. Local lodging, restaurants and other businesses that earn revenues from tourism missed the money generated by interstate travelers, reunions, weddings and other activities. Traveler going north and south in their trips to and from Florida were missed, she said.
Now with the advent of COVID vaccines, people are becoming more comfortable with travel, Null said.
"Overall, there was still a lot of great things that happened," she stated.
The MCCVB worked during 2020 to support local tourism by taking measures that included purchasing 100 gallons of hand sanitizer for tourism partners and investing in additional outdoor recreation marketing, according to the bureau's 2020 annual report. Because of this, Camp Creek State Park saw an increase in winter camping and a successful year overall, and the Hatfield-McCoy Trails rebounded immediately after closures were lifted.
The bureau also created a COVID-19 resource page with information about travel, links to health resources and community-related content. Two shop local marketing campaigns were launched as well.
Social media, an email newsletter and a website helped the bureau stay connected with people interested in visiting Mercer County, keeping the area in their minds when they planned future trips. Other content encouraged them to stay safe by practicing social distancing, visiting the outdoors responsibly and shopping locally, according to the report. A photo and video shoot with Digital Relativity — highlighting ATVs and Lake Shawnee, respectively — took place in 2020 and gave the bureau new content to use in marketing and advertising efforts.
Social media highlights included 15,012 total page likes on Facebook with more than 900 new page likes in 2020. The bureau had 2,497 Instagram followers and 879 Twitter followers, according to the annual report. There were 1,941 newsletter subscribers, up 21 percent since May 1, 2020.
Most visitors to the MCCVB's website are based in West Virginia, Virginia and Pennsylvania. The largest increase was visitors from Maryland. Some of the website's most popular pages included Lake Shawnee, ATV and Shop Local.
Across the state line in Tazewell County, Va., tourist venues like the Spearhead Trail — which includes Buchanan County — and the Back of the Dragon are seeing more visitors with the arrival of warmer weather.
And they are staying longer, said Jake Laney, a member of the Back of the Dragon management staff. There was some confusion when the pandemic started last year, but a lot more motorcycle riders are arriving now.
"I think (pandemic) hindered us in the beginning, but now people are wanting to get out and have fun and enjoy their lives, and we expect an even better season this year," Laney said. "We get a lot of people from the Midwest, North Carolina, Indiana, Illinois and the East Coast. Just about everywhere."
The pandemic helped inspire a desire among many people to enjoy some outdoor recreation, said Shawn Lindsey, executive director of the Southwest Regional Recreation Authority. This brought more ATV riders to the Spearhead Trail.
"We're seeing that really throughout the pandemic that people have been coming in larger numbers," Lindsey stated. "I think that it's basically one of the safest things you can do."
Outdoor recreation such as ATV riding can make taking measures against COVID-19 easier, but visitors are still being advised to wear masks, use hand sanitizer, wash their hands frequently and practice social distancing when they are in local towns, restaurants and other venues.
"It's not like the pandemic is over yet, and even vaccines are not 100 percent," Lindsey said. "The trail seems to be one of the safer things you can do during the pandemic and we are seeing some pretty good numbers."
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