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OPINION: Coronavirus takes its toll on Southwest Virginia's budding tourism industry

OPINION: Coronavirus takes its toll on Southwest Virginia's budding tourism industry

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Sometimes it seems as though Southwest Virginia just can’t catch a break.

As the coal industry that sustained the region for most of the 20th century began winding down these past few years, we heard our leaders imploring us to embrace tourism as the economy of the future.

It seemed like a good idea, considering our region’s abundant natural beauty stemming from our breathtaking mountains and clean, free-flowing streams and rivers.

While manufacturing has made some inroads, tourism has truly been at the heart of the region’s recovery from the demise of coal, and its growth had given us plenty of optimism about the future.

The jobs tourism generates generally don’t pay as well as manufacturing and even coal jobs, but there’s nothing that can take away these new jobs because people will always flock here to take advantage of the great recreational opportunities that abound in Southwest Virginia.

Or so we thought. That is, until COVID-19 hit us like a runaway coal train.

In just a matter of weeks, the tourism industry began to experience an economic decline that rivals the downturn that took years to develop in the coal industry.

How to fight it is still up in the air. Will this virus really mean an entirely new “normal” for us, as many people have suggested? Or will a magic cure or a fantastic vaccine come along soon to make this pestilence disappear, or at least recede to a manageable level?

No one knows, and so the budding tourism economy of Southwest Virginia remains stalled, with even some of our longtime stalwarts — such as our own Barter Theatre and Abingdon’s Martha Washington Inn — facing economic peril.

Staff writer Joe Tennis summed it up succinctly in this week’s front page story:

“So, right about now, we should be marching down the streets of Abingdon with a festival frame of mind,” Tennis wrote. “But that ain’t gonna happen this year.”

He proceeded to list some of the high-profile events that usually highlight our tourism season, but which have been dropped because of that virus — such as the Virginia Highlands Festival, the Hungry Mother Arts and Crafts Festival and many more.

In a separate story, Tennis outlined the coronavirus woes of the Barter Theatre, which still hasn’t been able to open its Abingdon stages for the 2020 season.

He also talked about the Martha Washington Inn, whose depressed bookings have so far caused about $2 million in lost revenue since the pandemic shutdown began, and a variety of Abingdon restaurants whose receipts are down drastically from what they should have been.

Tennis noted in one of his stories that these cancellations and business downturns will continue unabated, “Unless there’s a vaccine for COVID-19,” which he suggested might not be until “next July. Or maybe August. Who knows? Until then, we’re likely not to see festivals going on.”

Getting people out and about again will be a challenge. To help plan for the hoped-for recovery, the Virginia Tourism Corp. will make more than $866,000 in tourism grants this summer to support up to 90 “destination marketing organizations” through the group’s new WanderLove program, Gov. Ralph Northam announced last week.

Among the regional recipients of these grants — totaling $10,000 each — will be such organizations as the Abingdon Convention & Visitors Bureau, Big Stone Gap Visitor Center, Bristol Convention and Visitors Bureau, Friends of Southwest Virginia and more.

“Tourism is one of the largest sectors of Virginia’s economy, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the industry,” Northam said in a release.

“Travel will look different for as long as this virus is with us, and many Virginians are seeking getaways that are closer to home,” he said. “The WanderLove recovery grants will help our localities prepare for a rebound in tourism, market their destinations as safe and accessible, and drive new economic activity as we gradually welcome visitors back to our Commonwealth.”

If this initiative works as planned, it will be money well spent.

And we can only hope that the recovery comes much sooner than later.

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