FAYETTEVILLE, W.Va. — International tourism is growing in southern West Virginia due to the creation of America's newest national park.
Visitors to the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve are more culturally diverse than ever, say civic leaders in Fayetteville, West Virginia, the chief center of activity in the park's northern region.
Sharon Rynard, the owner of a store complex near the monumental New River Gorge Bridge, which is the centerpiece of tourism in the northern park, says the appearance of more foreign visitors is striking.
"We're seeing more international tourists than I have ever seen in my past 20 years here," Rynard says of the boom.
"It was apparent as soon as the new national park was dedicated, but it's been growing gradually and steadily ever since, and it isn't slowing down."
Rynard's store complex is located on the US-19 expressway at its junction with a scenic parkway that leads out of the gorge, an increasingly high-traffic intersection at which officials have considered installing a traffic signal.
Tabitha Erwin Stover, executive director of the town's convention and visitor bureau, agrees with Rynard that the phenomenon began soon after the park was established in 2020 and had been increasing ever since.
"We've registered guests from 18 countries here at the visitor center," Stover said.
"It's growing, and it's going to keep growing."
Many organizations, as well as the park service and state government, are working to engage with more international visitors, according to Lisa Strader, executive director of the Southern West Virginia Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Strader said national parks are big business when it comes to international as well as domestic travel. Her organization and other state tourism partners met with travel bureaus from several nations at a recent regional travel convention and expect the trend to continue.
"We met with about 40 travel buyers and planners from multiple counties," Strader said. "They all reiterated that the outdoors and national parks interest their clientele.
"Many plan trip itineraries to major metropolitan areas around us, and they seem very interested in the fly-drive experience as most international travelers come for multiple weeks and visit multiple states."
Rynard says businesses in her store complex are thriving due to the boom in tourism, which has witnessed growth of more than 30 percent annually since 2022.
"It's nice to see so many people from so many backgrounds and cultures experiencing the area," she said.
"We see license plates from way farther away than we've ever seen, and the number of people driving out of the gorge in front of our properties is growing in leaps and bounds."
12 remarkable facts about the New River Gorge in West Virginia
The nation's newest national park, the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, is full of secrets, surprises, historic sites, and charming quirks, and chances are good that all of these are within just a day’s drive. The park is within an eight-hour drive of nearly 60 percent of the U.S. population. Drive time is approximately five hours from Cleveland, four from Charlotte and Cincinnati, five from Washington, D.C., six from Indianapolis, and eight from New York City. READ THE FULL STORY HERE.