Link to ARC home page.

Ecotourism Takes Off in the "Heart of Appalachia"

by Lynda McDaniel

Photo Gallery
Photo of Rick Mullins on his family-owned farm

Rick Mullins still remembers how much his cousins from Indiana and Florida enjoyed riding horses, pitching horseshoes, and floating down the river whenever they visited his family on their farm in the mountains of southwestern Virginia. Even as a youngster, Mullins thought that kind of back-to-nature experience could be turned into a good business opportunity. When, as an adult, he read forecasts in the Kiplinger Letter about the rising popularity of bed and breakfast inns and a new trend called ecotourism, he knew he was onto something. So it's not surprising that Mullins now operates a bed and breakfast inn and a 30-horse stable—which includes the world grand champion horse "the Virginia Undertaker"—on his family-owned farm in Clintwood, Virginia.

Mullins is a member of a community of business owners working together with the Heart of Appalachia Tourism Authority, based in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, to develop ecotourism and agritourism in southwestern Virginia. The authority covers seven counties—Buchanan, Dickenson, Lee, Russell, Scott, Tazewell, and Wise—as well as the city of Norton.

Ecotourism, as defined by the International Ecotourism Society, is "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of the local people," and it's proving to be good business in an area where lush mountain landscapes dominate and wildlife thrives. Ecotourism is the fastest-growing segment of the global tourism industry; and tourism is the fastest-growing industry in southwestern Virginia, with an average annual growth rate of 17 percent.

Phyllis Deel, a Virginia Cooperative Extension agent who has served on the tourism authority board since its inception in 1994, was one of the early visionaries who saw opportunities in the region's mountains and rivers that could compensate for the decline in the coal, tobacco, and textile industries.

"We have helped build an infrastructure that entrepreneurs can use to develop their own jobs and generate income by capitalizing on sustainable, value-added, community-based tourism," she says. "We worked on marketing opportunities, especially cooperative marketing for attractions that package well together, and new amenities that encourage people to stay longer. That helps us capture more of the tourism dollar and bring in new money from outside."

First-Class Credentials for Ecotourism

The Heart of Appalachia region of Virginia comes with first-class credentials for ecotourism. A large portion of it has been designated as a bioreserve through the Nature Conservancy's Clinch Valley Program, and this area is one of only 40 places worldwide to be named part of the organization's "Last Great Places" ecosystem protection initiative. The Heart of Appalachia's natural havens include thousands of acres of the Jefferson National Forest, the 4,500-acre Breaks Interstate Park (which includes the "Grand Canyon of the South"), and the 850-acre Natural Tunnel State Park, among others. The Appalachian Trail, the Trans-America Bike Route, and the new Heart of Appalachia Bike Route and Scenic Drive weave their way through the region.

With attractions and trails already in place, a new initiative called Project Green Back, an Appalachian Regional Commission–funded program, is focusing on "connecting the dots" by helping entrepreneurs create amenities and services such as campgrounds, outfitters, guide services, lodging, shopping, and dining. Geneva O'Quinn has been working with the tourism authority since 1999 and now leads the program as executive director.

"The potential outdoor activities of the coal counties are unparalleled in the state," she says, "but we needed training for local entrepreneurs to build new businesses to support the attractions that we already have. We also needed to help people of the region think about economic development in a new way."

She and her partners developed a series of workshops that provided people like Rick Mullins, who already have their land and a healthy entrepreneurial spirit, with business training, marketing support, and networking opportunities. The first in the series, the "Nature Tourism Business Opportunities Workshop," attracted almost 100 attendees. Participation has also been strong in the other workshops, which include "How to Profit from Horses and Tourism," "B&B/Campground Study Tour," "Virginia/Kentucky Guest Lodging Conference," and "Heart of Appalachia Guide Training Course."

Appalachian Mountain Cabins in Clinchport took off after Roy and Phyllis Baker attended their first workshop. "We bought this land from my aunt and kept it for a couple of years without knowing exactly what we wanted to do with it," Phyllis Baker says. "Then we heard about the ecotourism. We went to the workshop, and it just started growing."

The Bakers have just completed their second cabin, and a third is planned. They are working closely with Natural Tunnel State Park, where the staff, eager to have additional housing nearby, have assured the Bakers that they will be booked on a regular basis since the demand for housing outweighs supply.

Gail and Rick Marney also contacted the tourism authority before they started their business, Mountain Empire Adventures, a guided-tour business that lets tourists use all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) to explore the Marneys' 300-acre woodland. At first, any mention of ATVs in conjunction with ecotourism raised a few eyebrows, especially from the Nature Conservancy, which in partnership with People Incorporated of Southwest Virginia and the tourism authority has provided a $100,000 revolving loan fund to help with the development of such ecotourism enterprises. But training sessions and helmets, as well as guides who make sure travel is slow and respectful, keep both the riders and trails safe. The ATVs also offer new access to people who physically cannot hike into the pristine property, where birds and other wildlife thrive.

To attract the visitors who will keep these businesses viable, O'Quinn has overseen an advertising blitz that has the potential to reach eight million people and has already brought 50,000 requests for information from readers of Parade Magazine, Smithsonian Magazine, Budget Traveler, Blue Ridge County, and American History, among other publications. The tourism authority is also gearing up for this fall's filming of Adriana Trigiani's Big Stone Gap—a major motion picture drawn on Trigiani's experiences growing up in the area in the 1970s—and preparing for the moviegoers who traditionally flock to areas featured in films.

Maximizing Resources

Maximizing natural resources also means mixing and matching talents. Bush Mill (built circa 1890), for example, a picturesque gristmill on Amos Branch near Nickelsville, will begin operation again in late summer as a cooperative effort between the Nickelsville Ruritan Club, local students, and a number of community organizations. Paul Kuczko, director of the Lonesome Pine Office on Youth, explains how this latest project of Virginia Rural Entrepreneurship through Action Learning works.

"It's different from Junior Achievement—the kids own the business. They are job creators," he says. "This gives our low-income kids a real shot at a business. And with only three millers left in the [Ruritan] club, it won't hurt to train some young folks on how to operate the mill." The students will create business and marketing plans for the mill business and oversee its daily operations.

Over in the town of Wise, the owners of the Inn at Wise, which is slated to open in stages beginning early next spring, and the artisans in Purely Appalachia Craft Empowerment (PACE) are also pairing up. Traditional handicrafts that are commissioned to decorate the inn (and are sold there) and assistance from the tourism authority have helped get this major restoration under way.

"[The authority] has provided us with a great deal of information we needed to complete a feasibility study for this project and develop our business plan," says Michele Valkenaar, managing partner of the inn. "Its Web site is a valuable resource, and we look forward to working [together] on a host of tourism-promoting activities as we develop our business."

PACE is just one of the historic and cultural programs that complement the natural resources of the region. The Carter Family Memorial Music Center in Hiltons and the Dr. Ralph Stanley Memorial Bluegrass Festival in Smith Ridge attract thousands of music lovers annually. And The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, Virginia's official state outdoor drama and the longest-running outdoor drama in the state, has for 38 years been telling the story of the coal boom and how it changed a time-honored way of life.

The momentum continues to build with new outdoor attractions such as the Virginia Birding and Wildlife Trail spearheaded by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. O'Quinn sees this trail as an excellent opportunity to expand ecotourism in the region.

"Local entrepreneurs can benefit by nominating sites on this trail and incorporating their business into the trail's infrastructure," she explains. "This trail can become a major marketing platform for the region."

Sue Carr, owner of Sandy Head Ostrich Farm in Tazewell County, has been involved in organizational meetings for the trail and is submitting site recommendations. She first heard of the tourism authority through a fellow farm owner and friend—Sandra Bennett at Thistle Cove Farm—and has attended several workshops and meetings. "Geneva and her staff came out and looked the place over and gave me suggestions. They helped me with everything from time management to how to make the farm more interesting to tourists." Carr is currently developing a "U-pick" feature by growing produce in raised beds accessible to seniors and people who use wheelchairs, and plans to offer tours of her farm, where she raises ostriches, emus, and Easter-egg chickens (which lay colored eggs), among others birds.

O'Quinn has a bird-dog sense about the potential that lies in these thickly wooded mountains. She sees campgrounds attractively nestled near the Clinch River, she hears trained guides sharing legend and lore along new trails, and she can almost taste the fare at new cafes and restaurants that will keep guests returning. Her enthusiasm comes naturally, she says, given all she has to work with.

"Our goal with this program has been to combine the beauty of our natural resources with the spirit of our human resources to provide new business opportunities in ecotourism that will promote economic development in our region," she adds. "It's easy to accomplish this when you have such an abundance of both."

Lynda McDaniel is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Virginia.