Williamsburg in the top ten state tourist destinations in 2017

jojacobs@vagazette.com, rarriaza@vagazette.com

Williamsburg was named a top 10 tourism destination in Virginia in terms of economic impact in 2017, according to a recent Virginia Tourism Corporation report.

The city fell from ninth place to 10th place in 2017. A separate Virginia Tourism Corporation report found the Williamsburg area had a roughly 50 percent hotel occupancy rate, which was the lowest regional rate in the statewide report.

Williamsburg was compared to 133 localities in Virginia, ranking just behind Prince William County in Northern Virginia, according to a report released by the Virginia Tourism Corporation Wednesday. The agency reports that Williamsburg brought in $587 million in domestic tourism spending in 2017, which is a $15 million increase from the previous year.

Despite this increase, the city fell one position in 2017 after a 14-year streak in ninth place. In 2016, Prince William ranked 10th.

Rankings are based on money spent by in- and out-of-state residents on food, entertainment, lodging, transportation, tax receipts and incidental purchases.

But the fall isn’t cause for alarm. It’s also important to factor the rest of the Historic Triangle into the discussion about the economic impact of tourism, said Bob Harris, interim executive director of the Greater Williamsburg Chamber & Tourism Alliance’s Tourism Council.

The rest of the Historic Triangle fared well, with tourism spending figures up in James City and York counties when compared to 2016. The counties placed 12th and 22nd respectively, holding on to their rankings from 2016. James City generated $431 million in tourism spending last year, while York brought in $239 million from domestic tourists visiting the locality.

“Expenditures are higher this year than they’ve ever been,” Harris said.

During a 10-year timespan, the annual growth rate of tourism spending in the Historic Triangle has increased by an average of 2.1 percent, according to the state agency. Of the three localities, Williamsburg has had the slowest annual growth rate between 2007 and 2017, an average of 1.7 percent.

Esra Calvert, director of research at the Virginia Tourism Corporation, attributed the growth to a strong historical tourism base combined with increased variety in the area’s dining and entertainment offerings.

“It’s always impressive to look at a region because travelers always look for something to do, and they have done a good job in changing their product by bringing in more breweries and restaurants,” she said.

Statewide, domestic travel expenditures totaled $24.8 billion in 2017, an increase of 4.4 percent compared to the previous year. Domestic travel directly generated $3.4 billion in local, state and federal tax revenue last year, which was an increase of 3.3 percent in comparison to 2016, according to the economic impact report.

“Virginia’s tourism industry is an important diversifier for our economy as it continues to grow and flourish in multiple regions of our commonwealth,” said Gov. Ralph Northam in a news release from the state regarding the report. “These visitors are spending millions of dollars a day, injecting critical funds back into our community coffers and helping to make Virginia the best place to live, work and raise a family.”

Last year, the local tourism industry supported more than 12,000 jobs across the Historic Triangle and $246 million in direct wages, salaries and tips. Domestic travelers spending time in the Historic Triangle generated $59 million in state taxes and $47 million in local taxes. The study didn’t report the number of visitors to Virginia localities.

Despite the local increase in tourism spending, lodging occupancy numbers in Williamsburg were stagnant when compared to last year.

In a separate Virginia Tourism Corporation report released in July, figures show the Williamsburg area had a 49 percent occupancy rate from January to July 2018, marking only a 0.2 percent increase from the same seven-month span in 2017.

The Williamsburg area had the lowest hotel occupancy percentage among regions in the state studied by the Virginia Tourism Corporation during the period. The report’s “Williamsburg” designation includes the city, James City and upper York counties. The state average for hotel occupancy was about 66 percent.

Calvert said the low occupancy numbers could be due to the high number of timeshares in the area, which are not included in the agency’s monthly lodging reports.

“Williamsburg is a unique area because there are timeshares and rentals as well, and this report doesn’t include timeshares, so sometimes it’s hard to compare that,” she said. “It’s an indicator, but it’s not every hotelier or timeshare in the region, and Williamsburg has a good portion of timeshares.”

Harris echoed Calvert’s statement on timeshares, saying their omission skews the true picture of overnight stays in the region. He noted James City and York transient nights in timeshares are up from January to June of this year compared to 2017. The chamber doesn’t have information on timeshares in Williamsburg or the stays of timeshare owners, but does receive information from James City and York on transient occupants.

In James City, there were 60,629 transient room nights in timeshares. In York, there were 24,110 transient room nights. Both localities saw increases of about 2,000 transient room nights this year compared to the same time last year, Harris said.

Members of the Tourism Council, created by Senate Bill 942 to leverage a 1 percent increase to the region’s sales tax to market the region to overnight tourists, have expressed interest in a deeper analysis of the full picture of room nights in the area, Harris said.

2017 Greater Williamsburg tourism figures at a glance:

Williamsburg:

  • Total spending by domestic tourists: $587,820,167
  • Salaries and wages collected by tourism industry workers: $121,737,163
  • Number of residents directly employed in the tourism sector: 5,973
  • Travel-related state taxes generated: $25,914,855
  • Travel-related local taxes generated: $20,177,095

James City County:

  • Total spending by domestic tourists: $431,979,154
  • Salaries and wages collected by tourism industry workers: $80,747,062
  • Number of residents directly employed in the tourism sector: 4,025
  • Travel-related state taxes generated: $22,310,907
  • Travel-related local taxes generated: $17,843,013

York County:

  • Total spending by domestic tourists: $239,025,689
  • Salaries and wages collected by tourism industry workers: $43,594,172
  • Number of residents directly employed in the tourism sector: 2,065
  • Travel-related state taxes generated: $11,759,803
  • Travel-related local taxes generated: $9,070,973

Top ten destinations by expenditures in 2017:

  • Arlington: $3,258,627,215
  • Fairfax: $3,164,065,687
  • Loudoun: $1,763,954,812
  • Virginia Beach: $1,562,120,630
  • Henrico: $915,902,960
  • Norfolk: $840,529,002
  • Alexandria: $826,262,646
  • Richmond: $761,054,709
  • Prince William: $592,083,413
  • Williamsburg: $587,820,167

This story has been updated.

Jacobs can be reached by phone at 757-298-6007. Arriaza can be reached at 757-790-9313.

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