Tourism revenue drops in Fairfax County

By Gregg MacDonald
Fairfax County Times
Thursday, January 20, 2011

Although Fairfax County remains one of Virginia's top tourism destinations, it no longer holds the state title for generating revenues after being supplanted by neighboring Arlington County.

Fairfax officials don't plan on being second for long.

According to the most recent revenue report issued by the U.S. Travel Association to the Virginia Tourism Corporation, travel-related expenditures in Fairfax County fell nearly 11 percent from 2008 to 2009, the latest year for which data is available.

The USTA report is based on domestic visitors traveling to Virginia counties from at least 50 miles away and compares revenues among the state's 134 counties and independent cities using criteria such as gas station revenues, food service excise taxes and hotel occupancy rates.

According to the report, Fairfax came in second, with total tourism expenditures at slightly less than $2.3 billion, down from nearly $2.6 billion in 2008. Arlington, even with its own $276 million drop during that same time, claimed the top spot in 2009, at a little more than $2.3 billion.

"We have occupied that top tourism expenditures spot for quite a while," said Barry Biggar, president and chief executive of Visit Fairfax, the county's tourism board. "We need to get it back."

Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova (D) emphasized the importance of the county's tourism industry during her State of the County address this month, saying it is one potential avenue for diversifying Fairfax County's economy.

"As economic conditions remain challenging, travel demand is under pressure both in terms of trip volume and spend per trip," Adam Sacks, managing director of Tourism Economics, said in a December release issued by the Virginia Tourism Corporation. "In this competitive and constrained market, destinations must redouble their marketing efforts to succeed."

According to Biggar, that includes studying the best use of the county's marketing funds.

"We had a visitors center in Lorton that we closed in 2010," Biggar said. "We are currently exploring whether providing visitor information at Dulles Airport would be a better use of funds, or if, in this era of smartphones and Wi-Fi, travelers even utilize that sort of thing at all anymore."

Although not affiliated with Visit Fairfax, the independent Herndon Dulles Visitor's Center in downtown Herndon soon might suffer the same fate as the former Visit Fairfax center in Lorton. It has reduced its hours and cut its payroll, and is struggling to survive.

In a letter addressed to Mayor Steve DeBenedittis and the Herndon Town Council, Drew Gillespie, the center's chairman said the center soon could close if it doesn't secure dedicated funding for the remainder of its fiscal year, which ends in July.

Cathy Keefe, manager of media relations for the U.S. Tourism Association, said "2009 was an extremely difficult year for tourism as a whole." According to Keefe, national domestic travel-related expenditures dropped 7.9 percent in 2009.

Tamra Talmadge-Anderson, director of public relations for the Virginia Tourism Corporation, said "2009 was a historic recession for the entire country."

"Domestic travelers still spent nearly $18 billion in Virginia in 2009, which is only down 7.9 percent from 2008, the same as the national figure. So, overall, you could say Virginia has held its own."

"Even in times of recession, the tourism industry remains a strong instant revenue generator for Virginia, with a proven 5-to-1 return on investment," said Alisa Bailey, Virginia Tourism Corporation president and chief executive. "The recent study data also highlighted other important figures for the state, including a 16 percent increase in international visitation, and the fact that Virginia remains eighth in the nation for domestic visitor spending."

"While 2009 was an extremely tough year across the board for the travel industry, we started to see a recovery in 2010, and we'll continue to see improvement into 2011," Keefe said. "My advice to destinations and suppliers is to be flexible, patient, creative and willing to embrace new ideas."

"We recently launched a free Visit Fairfax iPhone application that will soon be available on Droid and other smart-phone platforms," Biggar said last week.

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