CUMBERLAND —The Great Allegheny Passage and the C&O Canal bring nearly 100,000 tourists to Allegany County each year, contributing more than $2.5 million to the local economy.
“This is a worldwide, nationally recognized destination,” said Bill Atkinson, trail program coordinator for the Maryland Department of Planning. “It’s something we’ve never had when it comes to tourism, is that destination, so this brings people from all over the world and all over the country.”
The Great Allegheny Passage begins in Cumberland where the C&O Canal comes to an end. When two trails meet, the number of tourists double.
“There’s absolutely been a positive impact with the trail,” said Barbara Buehl, the executive director at Allegany County Tourism. “We’ve had as many as 53 countries sign into our visitor center, and we usually have all 50 states sign in every year. For a small community, that’s phenomenal.”
The C&O Canal was an agricultural marvel of its day. A 185-mile long stretch along the Potomac River sustained the region’s economy by carrying coal, lumber and agricultural products for more than 100 years. President Richard Nixon established the canal as a National Historic Park in 1971 and, today, it is sought after for the rich history and recreational opportunities it provides.
The Great Allegheny Passage was completed in 2013 and stretches 150 miles to Pittsburgh.
Both trails bring outdoor enthusiasts from around the world to dine, shop and explore Cumberland’s small town charm.
Jason Yowell, manager at Cumberland Trail Connection, believes the influx of visitors is directly related to the recent restoration of Canal Place buildings.
“It’s (trails) the driver of tourism in this area,” said Yowell. “The Footer building would have nothing, it would have been demolished, and the Fairfield Inn would have never been built.”
Yowell said his shop is busy May through October and serves travelers from all around the globe.
“We rent bikes every day of the week all throughout spring, summer, fall and it stays consistent right through the end of October. It’s not unusual at all to get people in here from Australia or Germany. We get tons of people from Canada, South America, Asia, Australia — you name it.”
Gail Hall, owner of the Decatur Street Inn, said the type of tourists traveling the trails are pleasant to accommodate and spending substantial amounts of money in the area.
“Cyclists are the easiest tourists you’ll ever have,” said Hall. “They never complain. If they are willing to muster through the heat and bugs all day biking, they just want a good meal. But, that doesn’t mean they aren’t spending money. We do have the Pampering Pedal Package where I have a horse drawn carriage pick up my guests and take them to eat at Ottaviani’s Restaurant after they have had tea at the Gordon Roberts Museum. That’s $3,500 for two people, and people do it.”
Tourism in Maryland continues to grow and is a driving economic force in the state. According to the 2015 Tourism Development Annual Report published by the Maryland Tourism Development Board and the Department of Commerce, tourism sales increased 6.1 percent from 2013-2014. In Allegany County, total direct consumer tax impact totaled $5,649,597.
The trails are an asset to the community, and Hall stressed the benefits for the area.
“It (tourism) has a huge impact all the way around for lodging, restaurants, the museums ... these people here aren’t just kids riding bikes. Most of them are 50-plus, income $100,000 a year-plus, they’ve traveled all over the world and they just want lightly taken care of, and if you take care of them the rewards will be endless.”
According to the Adventuring Cycling Association, bicyclists contribute $133 billion annually creating 1.1 million jobs nationwide.
Follow staff writer Heather Wolford on Twitter @heatherbwolford.