Almost Heaven: Grand Tours in West Virginia

Of the gladdest moments in human life, methinks, is the departure upon a distant journey into unknown lands…A journey, in fact, appeals to the Imagination, to Memory, to Hope, —the three sister Graces of our moral being…”­­­­­­ —Sir Richard Burton (1872)


Young European aristocrats seeking to complete their education from the Renaissance period up until the Georgian period (1660-1820) would take a travel adventure across Europe that came to be called ‘ The Grand Tour.’ During this tour, young men and women (usually accompanied by a chaperone from their family) would seek skills and experiences in languages, literature, art, cultures, and history. In the current pandemic world, a new era of ‘Grand Tours’ has emerged, this time not limited to wealthy aristocrats, but still offering the same appeal to come, stay, and experience cultures and destinations like many have done in the past. It was during the Renaissance period following the Middle Ages there was a “rebirth” of travel that led to surge in scholarship, values, discovery, exploration, art, commerce, and innovations. For instance, resurgence of ancient trade routes such as silk, spice, and scents (a topic for some other time) offered traders and travelers an opportunity to explore, learn, and experience cultures by traveling to places which led to the Grand Tour period. Let’s check out this new era of ‘Grand Tours’!


In my previous blog post, I focused on future of travel through Hyperloops, its impact on the hospitality and tourism industry and how a new certification center in West Virginia would be a game-changer for the state and West Virginia University (click here to read Future of Travel: Loop of Life).


This year, we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of John Denver’s song, ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’ and promoting Almost Heaven, West Virginia. Gov. Jim Justice collaborated with WV Tourism to release the West Virginia Vacation Guide, redesigned to feel like a travel inspiration magazine, with the theme, “50 years of John Denver’s Country Roads.” As people are looking for stress-free and purposeful travel experiences during the post-pandemic world, destinations will have to re-evaluate and revive; appeal to evolving traveler behavior and concerns. Although currently, West Virginia is considered one of the “least-visited states” in the U.S., usually ranked in the last 10 U.S. states by number of annual visitors, there is no question West Virginia is emerging as one of the top U.S. states to visit in the aftermath of the pandemic. In fact, I agree with WV Tourism’s assertion that the “small towns, outdoor recreation, road trips, less-crowded spots, and affordable destinations” are the reasons why West Virginia has an opportunity to become a post-COVID “Grand Tour” destination in the U.S.

Photo Credit: Alex Wilson Media, visit http://www.alexwilsonmedia.com/


Looking back again at the European Grand Tour, although the trip represented a capstone of education for the aristocratic elite of Europe and the Americas, the trip was not all glamor and ease. Travelers were known to encounter seasickness on a rough sea passage, illness from foreign food and water, poor and impassible roads (for instance, when crossing the Alps), and thieves and highwaymen throughout the journey looking to steal money and jewels. Consequently, the Grand Tour came to be referred to as an Adventure Tour, and no matter how young and fit a traveler was, it was essential to ‘hire strong local men and a sedan chair’ to carry these travelers. These adventure tours usually started in London with specific trips to Paris, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, Spain, Greece, or Turkey, and Italy, with particular focus on the Italian cities of Florence, Naples, Venice, and Rome. After three centuries, ‘Grand Tours’ created a platform for leisure travel that we now recognize as modern tourism; for instance, it generated the concepts of travel maps, packages, things to do, guides, itineraries, luxury hotels, fine dining, a rating system, travel reviews, and events, to name a few. I personally take my students on study abroad trips to explore international destinations and seek specific knowledge by studying local history, culture, business, and innovations. However, these studies abroad trips are short, spanning only one to two weeks. A few faculty members design their study abroad trips to last a semester or two. Although these study abroad trips are rich with experience, they still cannot compare to the Grand Tour experience, which often lasted two years or more.


In the Digital Age, remote worker programs, which started to evolve in the early 2000's, now offer a chance for modern workers to get a taste of the Grand Tour experience. Now, through the magic of technology, work opportunities allow them to travel while continuing to work. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, West Virginia University initiated the Outdoor Economic Development Collaborative (OEDC) to foster tourism development of the unique outdoor assets of West Virginia and offer world-class outdoor educational opportunities alongside a brand-new remote worker program. This program received a $25 million transformational gift from the Brad and Alys Smith. Brad Smith was an Intuit executive and a native of West Virginia. The newly formed Brad and Alys Smith OEDC launched a remote worker program, ‘Ascend WV.’ Now remote workers across the country can move to ‘Wild and Wonderful’ West Virginia along with a free “Grand Tours” of adventure, an outdoor recreation package for an entire year.

Photo Credit: Ascend West Virginia, visit https://ascendwv.com/


According to Google Trends, ‘virtual field trips’ was the most searched word in 2020 under virtual category and ‘remote work’ reached its highest interest, and not surprisingly, in March 2020. What is surprising is that West Virginia is currently ranked 1st in the U.S. when it comes to remote work with queries for remote jobs. There are reasons why West Virginia’s Ascend WV remote worker program is trending at the top for remote work. It could be due in part to the scenic beauty of the state, so perfectly described by John Denver as "Almost Heaven" in his song, "Take Me Home, Country Roads." Instead of virtual field trips during the pandemic, travelers can now visit West Virginia as more people are connecting remote work to West Virginia. Let's explore the phenomenon that is drawing people to West Virginia in droves.


McKinsey research found that prior to the pandemic, close to 5% of U.S. jobs were already fully automated and 70% of the job activities in 20% of the jobs could be automated if companies were willing or able to adopt existing technologies. During the pandemic, various international and U.S. destinations launched remote worker programs as COVID-19 forced a massive remote-work pilot in the country. However, most destinations that offer these remote worker programs are well known remote islands, major cities, and travel destinations, which means these places are usually crowded, risky in the pandemic world, and expensive. In contrast, Ascend WV programs offer remote worker programs within the small towns, less-crowded areas, and affordable destinations. The Grand Tours of history were packed with education experiences filled with luxury specifically designed for the elite class; they existed during an era where the concept of leisure travel for ordinary (not aristocratic) travelers did not even exist. Ascend WV offers major incentives to applicants, including an offer valued at over $20,000 which includes “$12,000 in cash, free outdoor recreation package, co-working space, social programming, and professional development and entrepreneurship assistance.” These are reasons why remote working in the ‘Wild and Wonderful West Virginia’ are such an alluring draw to those with a taste for adventure and outdoor recreation in this pandemic world.

Photo Credit: Alex Wilson Media, visit http://www.alexwilsonmedia.com/


West Virginia is the only state located entirely within the Appalachian Mountain region; 70% of the state is covered in forest and it has a ‘higher mean elevation’ than any other state. West Virginia offers the best white water rafting and is ranked 5th for urban air quality in the country. Furthermore, West Virginia is located within 500 miles of 60% of U.S. population and a third of Canada’s population. Recently, the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve was designated the 63rd (and newest) National Park in the country. All of this has come together at perfect time in the pandemic world and beyond, when people are seeking more outdoor adventures such as hiking, climbing, and rafting. West Virginia has taken steps to secure their place in the outdoor tourism trend by recently elevating the West Virginia Tourism Commissioner to the cabinet position of Secretary of Tourism in state government. West Virginia offers a “true four-season vacation destination.” It is an outdoor adventure hub with a beautiful fall foliage, idyllic fishing spots, and scenic trains. In winter, it offers magical destinations for skiing, snowmobiles, and winter sports. ln spring, cruise country roads for scenic drives, explore small towns, and find adventure for spring break. In summer, the whole landscape transforms again for enjoying all kinds of water sports, hiking, rock-climbing, and biking.


During the pandemic, students in one of my courses investigated outdoor destinations in the U.S.: Asheville, NC and Chattanooga, TN for outdoor rock climbing; Boise, ID and Salida, CO for whitewater rafting; and Roanoke, VA and Bentonville, AR for mountain biking; and later compared them to outdoor destinations in West Virginia. In a nutshell, West Virginia offers 1.5 million acres of parks and public land, more outdoor rock-climbing routes (4000+), better whitewater rafting experiences (98,000 miles of rivers and streams), hiking trails (1500+ miles), and has more off-road trails (1000+ miles) compared to these outdoor destinations. Apart from the newest national park, there are 35 state parks with 9 forests and 3 rail trails, 5 winter ski resorts, 130+ golf courses, and 14 flatwater trails. Furthermore, West Virginia offers best freshwater scuba driving in the east coast (To learn more about the West Virginia outdoor recreation by the numbers, visit: https://ascendwv.com/). To have all these outdoor adventures in one relatively small state where they can all be experienced in one epic travel adventure is truly a Grand Tour experience in outdoor beauty and natural resources.

Photo Credit: Ascend West Virginia, visit https://ascendwv.com/


The classic European Grand Tours typically ended in Italy with grand tourists visiting specific centers of education, entertainment, and experiences. For instance, Venice for paintings, glassware, concerts/carnivals; Florence for renaissance art, country villas, and gardens; Rome for historic buildings, sculptures, and souvenirs; and finally, Naples for archeology, lava samples, pumice stones, and excavations of ancient city, Pompei. Every destination was marked with luxury accommodations, wine, and fine dining experiences to complete their education before going back to England. Like these Grand Tour experiences, the West Virginia Ascend Program offers three featured cities: Morgantown, Lewisburg, and Shepherdstown. Morgantown, a beautiful campus town, is the home of West Virginia University, a R1 - highest research activity doctoral university that includes 14 colleges and schools and offers 359 undergraduate and graduate majors. Besides, it’s proximity to a Grand Tour of outdoor adventures, Morgantown is a vibrant town with college sports, a foodie paradise, and night life. Lewisburg is a “jewel of southern West Virginia” that offers unique boutiques, galleries, and historic streets, including in its charms the Greenbrier Valley Theatre and one of only four Carnegie Halls in the world. Finally, Shepherdstown, considered the oldest town in West Virginia, has a strong connection to the past with Historic Civil War Era sites located along the Potomac River in the lower Shenandoah Valley.


Video Credit: Ascend West Virginia, visit https://ascendwv.com/


Apart from a Grand Tour of world-class outdoor adventures, explore the ‘Mountain State’s’ four season towns and destinations, from its historic small towns, less crowded highlands and valleys, stunning mountain lakes, to its affordable outdoor getaways. Before you leave here, West Virginia will convince you it really is "almost heaven," a home away from home and an experience to carry with you forever! Whether you want to remote work long-term through Ascend WV or visit short-term to ascend to ‘Almost Heaven West Virginia,’ there is no better time to visit the safe and healthy Mountain State, your ultimate outdoor destination during and beyond the pandemic.

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