Almost heaven: West Virginia starts new tourism campaign

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia is embarking on a tourism advertising push using John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”

Gov. Jim Justice unveiled a video Wednesday as the centerpiece for the campaign that frames the iconic song and the mountainous state’s natural beauty. The campaign borrows the words “almost heaven” as its slogan.

Justice said that a key theme to the campaign is “even though you haven’t maybe been a West Virginian, once you come here, you will long to come back.”

Tourism Commissioner Chelsea Ruby said research shows 86 percent of people who come to West Virginia eventually return. But last year, only 14 percent were first-time visitors.

“We want to change the way people think about West Virginia,” Ruby said.

The song on the video is performed by the indie folk-pop group “The Sea The Sea,” whose lead singer, Mira Stanley, is a Charleston native.

The state tourism office previously obtained the rights to use “Take Me Home, Country Roads” in marketing. It’s been an unofficial West Virginia anthem almost since its 1971 release and was named an official state song in 2014.

“That’s really how we’re known all over the world. We are almost heaven,” Justice said. “For crying out loud, we’re trying to get our message out to the world to just see that we’re not dark and backward and dingy and dusty and everything. We’re not that. We’re a people and a state with beauty that’s unsurpassed anywhere. And we have so many opportunities.”

The campaign plans to spend about $3 million this spring and summer. Targeted out-of-state markets include Baltimore; Charlotte, North Carolina; Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio; Harrisburg, Lancaster and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Richmond and Roanoke, Virginia; and Washington, D.C.

One of Justice’s campaign themes before he was elected in 2016 was to make the state a tourism mecca that he hoped would create thousands of new jobs.

Justice said his post-graduate degree is in marketing and advertising, so “this is right in my wheelhouse.”

West Virginia officials have made similar overtures in the past decade.

In February 2014, tourism officials announced renewed promotional efforts for “Wild Wonderful West Virginia” after the state’s image took a hit from a chemical spill a month earlier that tainted the tap water for thousands of residents.

In 2009, then-Gov. Joe Manchin announced a “Come Home to West Virginia” economic stimulus campaign by the state Department of Commerce to try to get former residents to move back to the state.