After 15 years of steady decline, West Virginia rafting outfitters experienced a welcome uptick in customer numbers in 2015, according to recently released data compiled by the state Division of Natural Resources.
Last year’s modest 3 percent increase in customer numbers followed a 2014 season that brought the number of whitewater rafting enthusiasts to the state’s commercially outfitted streams to its lowest ebb. A total of 134,082 people paid to take guided raft trips down the New, Gauley, Cheat, Shenandoah and Tygart rivers last year, up 3,870 from 2014.
“We’re excited to see the increase,” said Dave Arnold, spokesman for Adventures on the Gorge, the state’s largest whitewater outfitter, based at Lansing in Fayette County. “A lot of people don’t realize it, but as an industry, we’ve lost about half our rafting business since 2000. We’re glad to see the numbers moving up again.”
In 1996, West Virginia whitewater rafting outfitters guided 250,646 customers down the state’s five commercially run rivers, but by 2006, that number had dipped to 201,358. Rafting client numbers lingered in the 150,000 range until 2012, then dropped to the 140,000 range until 2014, when just over 130,000 people paid to raft the state’s rapids.
Rafting outfitters went through a series of mergers as the customer numbers declined, and branched into other outdoor activities, including ziplines, mountain biking, rock climbing and guided angling floats.
“We used to be a one-horse show,” said Arnold. “The horse is still there, but it’s being helped by a bunch of ponies to keep the show going.”
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