Oct 18, 2022 - News

Virginia tourism rebounds with Henrico leading the Richmond region

Welcome sign, entrance to the state of Virginia, Virginia is for Lovers. (Photo by: Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Richmond has benefited from a particular kind of traveler. Photo: Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Tourism to Virginia and the Richmond region made a comeback in 2021.

Driving the news: Statewide visitor spending was 87% recovered from pre-pandemic levels, with drivable destinations for outdoor and indoor leisure propelling the recovery, Caroline Logan, director of communication for Virginia Tourism Corporation, tells Axios.

  • Early numbers indicate the 2022 figures will be even stronger, per the tourism report.

Why it matters: Tourist spending supports 185,000 jobs in the state and nearly 24,000 in the Richmond region, according to tourism officials.

What's happening: In the Richmond region, sports tourism β€” driven largely by youth tournaments β€” was the biggest lure for visitors, accounting for 68% of the area's overall group booking in 2021, according to Richmond Region Tourism, the local tourism organization.

Zoom in: Henrico saw the biggest piece of the local tourism pie, raking in $1.3 billion in tourist spending in 2021, nearly half of all spending in the seven localities that make up the region.

  • Henrico hosted 160 outdoor sports tournaments in 2021, per the county, and is poised to grow that in the coming years when the Henrico Sports & Event Center opens next fall and once GreenCity and its arena open.
Data: Richmond Region Tourism; Chart: Axios Visuals

Details: Northern Virginia is the perennial leader in the state for tourist dollars spent by region and remained such in 2021, but recovery there hasn't been as strong as other parts of the commonwealth because it relies on business travelers, Logan tells Axios.

  • Hampton Roads came in second by region, as it usually does, driven by an "exceptionally strong" summer in Virginia Beach.
  • Central Virginia, which includes the Richmond region and Charlottesville, is the third-biggest destination in visitor spending.

What they're saying: "It's good news. [Tourism] continues to be heavily leisure-driven," Eric Terry, president of the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging & Travel Association, tells Axios.

Yes, but: When it comes to the ideal tourist, the business traveler is king (or queen) because they spend the most on average of any traveler β€” and they spend it mid-week, when it's most needed, Terry tells Axios.

  • And business travel hasn't come back anywhere.

The lack of business travelers put a damper on Richmond's tourism recovery, too, Logan said.

  • Tourist spending in the city proper was only 77% of pre-pandemic spending, but the second half of 2021 picked up as travelers felt safer, Logan said.

What we're watching: Inflation could take a bite out of leisure travel, Terry said, as travelers pull back on spending amid inflation worries and very real price increases.

Meanwhile: The staffing crisis lingers in the hospitality industry, with some hotels now blacking out up to half their rooms because they don’t have the workers to staff them, Terry said.

  • And a comparison of tourism-supported jobs in Richmond, Chesterfield and Henrico by Axios shows the region had more than 7,000 fewer workers in 2021 than 2019.
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