With increased marketing, funding and attractions--historical and otherwise--Prince William County is reporting a steady rise in tourists.
"We have been wildly aggressive with marketing Prince William as a vacation destination for the first time," said Sharon Cavileer, media relations manager for the Prince William County-Manassas Conference & Visitors Bureau. "People are finding it to be a compelling and interesting place to spend three or four days."
For example, a Civil War weekend recently drew visitors from up and down the East Coast as reenactors observed the anniversary of the First Battle of Manassas, in 1861.
The number of visitors to Prince William's Tourist Information Center in Occoquan continues to grow, with an increase of 13 percent, 14 percent and 11 percent respectively for April, May and June over the same time in 1998.
Virginia measures the economic effect of tourism. For 1997, the latest year for which statistics are available, travel spending in Prince William and Manassas was about $262 million, up 17 percent from 1996. Prince William officials said the new figures from the state are due this month.
Stafford County is having a boom in tourists, too.
"There's no question that tourism is substantially up in Stafford," said Gene Bailey, assistant county administrator for economic development in Stafford. He said the county had about 140,000 visitors to just the attractions that count tourists, including the Renaissance Fair.
"It's a continuing upward trend," he said. Five to six years ago, the county's attractions reported about 55,000 to 60,000 visitors.
With new attractions, such as the Freedom Museum in Manassas, and large tourist draws such as Potomac Mills Mall, Prince William offers much to a wide spectrum of visitors.
Golf also has become a major boom to the county's tourism.
"Prince William County didn't have real golf potential until the last few years," said Tabitha Mullins, director of tourism for the county.
With the county holding events such as the President's Cup, new visitors are traveling to Prince William to partake in the sport.
"It used to be they knew some of the courses but didn't know it was Prince William County. Now they're starting to recognize it" as a great county for golfing, Mullins said.
The average golfer in Prince William county is a regional visitor, traveling from fewer than 100 miles away, she said.
Manassas also has had gains in tourism, with 4,853 people stopping by the Historic Manassas Visitor Center this year, compared with 3,072 last year. Many of those visitors came for the annual Railway Festival, according to the visitor center. Compared with the previous year, the number of visitors to the Manassas Visitor Center was up 40 percent in April and 58 percent in June. It was down 2 percent in May.
Michelle LaBarbera, marketing director at Potomac Mills, said the number of tourists to the outlet mall has increased this summer. Bus numbers have increased 2 percent, to 1,184 buses so far this year. The individual tourist number has increased 4 percent.
Although she has no actual numbers, Debi Sandlin, president of Prince William Tourism Association and director of sales at Day's Inn Potomac Mills, said "there is a need for more hotels" in Prince William, with hotels booked March through June. But, she said, the rest of the year, the county's hotels are "fighting for a piece of the pie."
The county has 19 hotels and will have five new ones in the next few months, she said.
But Prince William still does not have a conference center, which neighboring Loudoun County does. The Leesburg-based Lansdowne Resort, a 305-room resort with a conference center, golfing, a spa and other facilities, opened in March 1990. Although it doesn't have specific occupancy numbers, the resort was fully occupied 77 percent of the time in 1998.
"Plenty of people who come to Lansdowne do other things in the county," said Dianne Murphy, Lansdowne spokeswoman. "We have an active concierge that tells people about events in Loudoun."
Many visitors, business groups included, go off the premises during their visit, she said.
"The meetings trade is huge and important," Cavileer said. "A lot of areas have added convention centers, and there's certainly a huge value in having them. We need meeting space here."
The five new hotels in Prince William are on the small side. Only about 400 rooms will be provided with the new additions.
"The hotels are coming, but we need a real high-end hotel," Cavileer said.
A citizens group appointed by the Board of County Supervisors is studying Prince William tourism, which falls under the jurisdiction of the Park Authority. The group's purpose is to "make sure we're achieving what we want in tourism," said Kathy Bentz, county spokeswoman.
Before possibly moving tourism into its own entity, the group is surveying other jurisdictions, studying how they manage their tourism programs and how they are structured and funded. The group will make recommendations to supervisors in August.
"I think that the board certainly recognizes the growing importance of tourism in the county," Bentz said. "We're doing the study to make sure the county is organized in a way that makes the best advantage of tourism."
Tourism promotion in Prince William receives money from the county through the transient occupancy tax, grants from organizations such as the Virginia Tourism Corp. and a co-op amount from the City of Manassas.
Bentz said tourism will receive a projected $926,000 from the tax for fiscal 2000, which started July 1. Manassas kicks in $35,000, and Virginia Tourism awarded a $24,800 grant for Prince William's "Come for the History . . . Stay for the Fun" campaign.
Prince William tourism receives a standard 75 percent of the transient tax for its budget from the county, with a possibility of gaining the other 25 percent, if that money is not used by supervisors.