RICHMOND, Va. — Tourism revenue in Virginia topped more than $20 billion in 2011, an 8 percent increase over the previous year and fueled in part by the weak economy.

With Virginia a day’s drive from 60 percent of the U.S. population, the state has become a travel destination for cost-conscious families seeking a less expensive get-away, tourism officials said Wednesday. It’s also being rediscovered by Virginians who want to explore attractions in their own state.

“What you see when the economy goes through a rough patch is people who still want to travel, they want to take a vacation, but they look to stay a little closer to home,” Tamra Talmadge-Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Tourism Corp., said in an interview. “There’s so much to see and do — from beaches to mountains — you really can’t beat the value of Virginia.”

Tourism employment increased nearly 2 percent last year and generated $1.32 billion in state and local taxes, according to figures released by the governor’s office. The annual economic data from the U.S. Travel Association are based on domestic visitor spending on trips taken 50 miles or more from home.

Gov. Bob McDonnell said the tourism numbers underscore the importance of investing in tourism.

“Virginia’s tourism industry is bringing in more than $20 billion in revenue and providing more than 207,000 jobs for Virginians across the state. I’ve made tourism a key part of my administration’s economic development initiatives and it’s encouraging to see the positive return on investment,” McDonnell said in a news release.

Talmadge-Anderson said funding proposed by McDonnell and passed by the General Assembly also allowed tourism officials to buy television time in the spring of 2011, the first time in four years. “That investment is helping to keep tourism strong in Virginia,” she said.

The state funding helped pay for new Virginia is for Lovers commercials in eight out-of-state media markets. The tourism pitch was aimed at family travelers.

Three northern Virginia counties led the state in terms of travel spending: Arlington, $2.7 billion; Fairfax, $2.6 billion; and Loudoun, $1.5 billion. Rounding out the top 5 localities for tourism dollars are Virginia Beach, $1.2 billion; and Henrico County, $712.9 million.

The National Council of State Tourism Directors gave the Virginia tourism website, , its Mercury Award for Best Travel Web Site among states last week. Destinations, events, travel packages and special offers across the state are featured on the website.

Virginia’s wine industry also received recognition recently. Wine Enthusiast Magazine named Virginia one of the top 10 wine travel destinations in the world for 2012.

Talmadge-Anderson said the travel boom doesn’t show any signs of weakening.

“What we’re already hearing from our partners about this year, anecdotally, is an improvement over what we’ve seen in 2011, so that’s a good thing,” she said.

(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)


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