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2012 a good year for Washington County tourism

HAGERSTOWN — What once divided a nation turned into a big year for tourism in Washington County 150 years later.

The 150th anniversary celebrations of two Civil War battles — Antietam and South Mountain — brought visitors to Washington County, but local malls also reported a strong year.

“2012 will probably go down in history as the busiest year, or at least one of the busiest years in the tourism industry in Washington County,” Tom Riford, president and CEO of the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau said last week. “We expect well over 2 million visitors who have come to this county during this year, and we also anticipate visitor spending to exceed $300 million.”

The sesquicentennial celebrations of the Battles of Antietam and the Battle of South Mountain, both part of the Maryland Campaign of the Civil War in 1862, played a major role in the increase of visitors, which are defined as people who travel 50 miles or more into the county, according to Riford.

Antietam National Battlefield had a major spike due to the sesquicentennial, including about 50,000 people visiting the battlefield the weekend leading up to the anniversary in September, Riford said.

“To have 50,000 during one four-day weekend is an incredible number,” Riford said. “During the year, they’ll have about 350,000 that go into the visitor center at Antietam and a total of about 900,000 that’ll go through all the park.”

The 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 also might have helped increase tourism in Washington County, according to Riford. Other yearly factors in tourism for the county include the annual JFK 50 Mile ultramarathon, which was in its 50th year, the 2012 Greenbrier Challenge and other Civil War sites.

The increase in visitors has affected several areas of Washington County financially, Riford said. Those include retail and lodging, which includes hotels, motels, bed and breakfasts, and campgrounds. Occupancy in some of the lodgings is up by 10 or 15 percent in 2012, he said.

“All in all, October was up 15 percent in occupancy compared to the October a year ago,” Riford said. “We have about a 10 percent or more increase in the lodging tax that is collected by Washington County this calendar year compared to last year.”

Retail also has seen an increase this year, Riford said. Valley Mall is expected to exceed 8 million visits by the end of the year with 45 percent of the visits coming from outside of Washington County; Centre at Hagerstown is expected to exceed 5 million visits; and shopping visits at Premium Outlets also appear to be up, with 65 percent of visitors coming from outside of the county, he said.

“Retail is a huge part of our local economy,” Riford said. “Our shopping center visits are up this year because, I think, the economy is slightly improved over the past year and we’ve had increased tourism.”

Although specific events in Washington County contributed to the increase in tourism for 2012, Riford said those events could help the county in the future.

“When you have big events that generate a lot of publicity for Washington County, we see the attendance at those attractions actually begin to increase following the event. We call that the splash effect,” Riford said. “For instance, October, way after the anniversary of the battles of Antietam and what not, was our busiest month of the year.”

Riford said that 2013 in Washington County brings the 150th anniversaries of the battles of Hagerstown and many other towns in the county that followed the Battle of Gettysburg.