The head of Charleston's tourism agency is concerned that the early January nine-county water emergency may have inflicted long-term damage on the image of the region and state.
"Our brand overall is ‘Wild and Wonderful,' and tourists are not going to be able to discern where this contamination happened," said Alisa Bailey, president and chief executive officer of the Charleston Convention & Visitors Bureau.
"We pride ourselves even here in the city as being this wonderful recreation Mecca, nestled in the woods along these rivers," Bailey said. "Indeed, we've got a new hotel going up on the confluence of the Kanawha and the Elk (rivers).
"This is a big concern. If people think that the water's not safe, of all things. … You know with other disasters you can convince people much more easily that, ‘Hey, the electric is back on,' or ‘Hey, the bridge got fixed.' It's a very competitive world to attract meetings and conventions. We're concerned that this is going to linger."
Charleston Mayor Danny Jones has said the financial loss is "incalculable."
"We're going to be affected in the future," Charleston news media reported he said at a Jan. 21 City Council meeting. "The reputation of this community has really come under attack with those chemicals pouring into the river."
Bailey headed the state of West Virginia's tourism agency from 2001 to 2003 and went on to head Virginia's tourism agency for nine years.
"We're naturally going to work with the mayor and the city to see what avenues of relief we might be able to step into, but we're definitely going to try to determine in a conservative, meaningful way, what this impact is," she said. "My goal is to see if it is prudent to do a study if we get it funded — or can we collect enough information and use the information that's already been studied to draw some conclusions?"
Among the published works Bailey is examining is the study the U.S. Travel Association commissioned Oxford Economics to conduct following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Also known as the BP oil spill, it was the largest spill in the history of the oil industry.
Oxford assessed the potential longer-term impacts of the spill by examining 25 previous crises and concluded that the spill would impact travel to the Gulf region for a minimum of 15 months and for as long as three years.
"A review of disasters affecting tourism destinations reveals that the impact endures beyond the resolution of the crisis itself, due to brand damage and ongoing traveler misperceptions," Oxford claimed.
Bailey said that in the wake of that spill, both BP and the federal government provided some money to market the Gulf Coast.
If a study were performed of the nine-county water emergency declared Jan. 9, Bailey said she presumes it would calculate the impact and say that when the other studies are considered — "we can already tell that destinations have to revive themselves."
Bailey said a recent presentation she attended about "Pure Michigan," the state of Michigan's tourism advertising campaign, indicated that after the campaign ran national advertising on cable television systems, people who had seen the ads, even if they hadn't visited Michigan, were impacted in a favorable way.
"The point is tourism advertising and tourism outreach in the media really is the state's image as well as getting tourists here," she said. "There's not anything else out there. Economic development doesn't do stuff like that. They target business leaders. It impacts things as far-reaching as, ‘Hey, where do I want to send my kid to school? Do I want to send them to West Virginia?'
"All of these baby boomers — where do they want to retire? People aren't just naturally going to the seaside anymore. They want to go to local communities. And, ‘Where do I want to put my business?' Business people — software companies and all of those new kinds of business — are looking for quality of life.
"To me it is just devastating, this thing," she said. "We're going to have to do something. Now is the time. I know money is tight up at the Legislature but it really does need a source of one-time-only spending money to do a campaign. I think it needs to be a campaign."