A new tourist destination

Published 9:17 pm Tuesday, October 14, 2008

When Hampton Roads thinks tourism, the thoughts usually are of sun, surf and sand. A growing percentage of travelers, however, are looking westward, toward the land of peanuts and history, when they seek a place to relax.

Surprised? Suffolk leaders aren’t.

“Suffolk’s ‘historically hip’ spirit salutes four centuries of our rich heritage through historic homes, neighborhoods, churches, trails, festivals and events,” Mayor Linda Johnson said recently.

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The city is celebrating figures released by the Virginia Tourism Corporation that quantify the impact of visitors on the economies of cities and counties throughout the state, as well as on the commonwealth as a whole. Unsurprisingly for a state as rich in natural, historical and cultural resources as is Virginia, tourism makes a huge difference in the bottom line, contributing $18.7 billion to the economy in 2007.

To be sure, beach bums and other visitors to the city of Virginia Beach account for the vast majority of Hampton Roads’ portion of that spending, shelling out $1.24 billion on tacky T-shirts and high-rise hotels in 2007. Visitors to Suffolk, on the other hand, spent “only” $50.9 million, a sum that could be considered paltry only in this kind of skewed comparison.

Still, while tourism growth in Virginia Beach was about 6 percent from 2006 to 2007, Suffolk saw 8.6 percent growth in the same period, outpacing all Hampton Roads communities except Newport News and York County. Clearly, the city is doing something right when it comes to attracting visitors.

“More people (are) staying in our hotels and eating in our restaurants,” said Lynette White, Suffolk’s tourism development manager. Considering that those visitors added nearly a half million dollars to the city’s tax coffers last year, Suffolk would do well to keep those beds made and those tables set.