If you want to see how the communities of far Southwest Virginia are trying to reinvent their economies as their mainstay coal industry swirls down the drain, check out the website produced by the Heart of Appalachian Tourism Authority. The two-person authority is promoting regional music, culture, crafts and, most of all, outdoor activities like fishing, ATV riding, hiking, and camping. The authority scored a small coup by snagging “Heart of Appalachia,” performed by Wise County singer-songwriter Kaitlyn Baker, for use in its marketing.
You have to credit the scrappy tourism team for drawing a pretty picture of Southwest Virginia, which has more than its share of poverty and mining-despoiled landscapes. But realistically speaking, one has to ask what kind of economic contribution tourism can make. I still remember the words of deceased Virginia Tourism director Patrick McMahon who sympathized with the effort to lure backpackers and kayakers to the Virginia mountains but noted that selling water bottles and granola bars didn’t generate much in the way of revenue.
Southwest Virginia does not have, and never will have, the marketing dollars or the destinations to compete with first-tier tourism attractions. The region should look to the mountain regions of North Carolina for a nearby example — and perhaps to Aspen, Colo., for a distant example — of how to create an outdoor-oriented lifestyle that will lure retirees and second home-owners. The real money would come from visitors who fall in love with the area, purchase real estate, remodel old homes, build new ones, and start lifestyle businesses.
Getting people to visit the region is the first step in making such a transition, so the tourism initiative is entirely appropriate. But the effort can’t stop there. Local leaders need a broader vision of how to convert visitors into residents, and residents into investors.
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