CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Sometimes, money does grow on trees.
Dotted by charming small towns from the mountains to the west and the ocean to the east, Virginia is renewing efforts to tap its natural resources to help drive tourism. While summer remains the peak for tourism, state officials are working to shoulder the busier months with increased tourism other times of the year, especially fall, when leaves change from green to orange, yellow and red.
"It's like Mother Nature at her best," said Rita McClenny, president and CEO of the Virginia Tourism Corporation, a state agency responsible for marketing the state as a tourism destination. "There's something for everybody to love to really get outdoors in the fresh, crisp air."
And it's no surprise tourism revenue continues to rise to record highs in Virginia. The state is home to nearly 545 miles of the Appalachian Trail, shares miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway and encompasses nearly 1,000 square miles of lakes, rivers and bays. Virginia also boasts 22 national parks, 35 state parks and more than 4,000 caves.
"We get visitors from all over the world ... And those visitors will come and sit on our terrace and overlook our countryside and say that this view is better and more beautiful than any place in Europe for what it is," said Pam Milley, general manager of The Ashby Inn & Restaurant in the small community of Paris in Fauquier County.
The small inn is busiest in spring and fall, with rooms selling out most weekends and visitors filing up its restaurant. And while able to survive on its own merits, the natural assets surrounding the humble lodge are "icing on the cake," Milley said. "The foliage, the flowers, the way the hills roll, the way the farms are manicured, it's just an incredible, beautiful place."
In 2013, tourism revenue rose to a record high of $21.5 billion, representing $59 million in spending per day. That's up from $15 billion in tourism revenue in 2004.
The industry, which provided more than $1.42 billion in state and local taxes last year, also supported 213,000 jobs, comprising 7 percent of the state's total private employment. Virginia's travel industry is the fifth-largest private employer in the state, which ranks 9th in domestic traveler spending in the country.
At Salt, a small artisan market serving locally sourced picnic fare in Albemarle County, owner Barrett Hightower said business from visitors to several nearby wineries, Monticello, Ash Law-Highland and an apple orchard is "gravy" that will enable them to grow, make investments and continue catering to local customers at the 18-month-old cafe.
"A large part of the identity of the business is the location," she said of the stone-faced 1930s building that used to be a single-pump gas station. "It's one of the most beautiful spots anywhere, and rife with history."
State officials have said tourism is an important industry that will continue to fuel the "New Virginia Economy," a plan to focus state efforts on diversifying its economy to be less dependent on federal government-related jobs and targeting high-growth sectors like advanced manufacturing and cyber security by bulking up Virginia's infrastructure and boosting workforce development.
A state tourism plan released last year by PricewaterhouseCoopers said outdoor recreation and the development of the state's natural resources remain key drivers for the future of tourism in Virginia.
"I feel like there's more to be done. We knew there was so much that wasn't being nurtured that in a particular region or locality it was almost underappreciated," McClenny said. "Tourism now, particularly for Virginia, is becoming an industry that is changing communities. It's adding a vibrancy, goodwill and a lifestyle that people want to live, and that is changing economies."
Michael Felberbaum can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/MLFelberbaum .