By Judy Ellich for Somerset Daily American

Officials report that numbers are up in a key Somerset County industry — tourism.

Somerset County Commissioner James T. Yoder considers it an economic booster, so the news is welcome to him.

"Tourism is very important to the county, like a segue to other places in the world," Yoder said. "I'm proud of Somerset County; proud of the stuff that we haven't created — the beautiful mountains and streams and the beautiful views and things, and I'm also very proud of what has been made here for tourism."

According to the most recent economic studies by the Pennsylvania Tourism Office, travelers spent more than $399 million in Somerset County in 2015.

Visitors are attracted by the diverse history, culture and recreation experience here, Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau Executive Director Ann Nemanic said.

"There is a special spirit in those involved in travel and tourism and a lot of entrepreneurship," she said. "The beauty of the travel industry is that an entrepreneur can start small and build up," she said.

The Great Allegheny Passage turns 40

Numerous businesses are in trail towns along the Great Allegheny Passage, a 150-mile hike and bike trail that runs through southern Somerset County. It goes from Cumberland, Maryland, to Pittsburgh. The passage turns 40 this year.

"These trail towns are incredibly booming because of the trail," Yoder said. "People say they are not big paying jobs. But for the hotel owner, the bed and breakfast owner, the restaurant owner — it is big business. "

The Meyersdale Area Historical Society operates a visitors center in the renovated Western Maryland Railway Station, a popular stop for trail users and history buffs. The society staffs the center with grant money from the Somerset County Tourism Grant Program and keeps tab of everyone who enters its doors. In 2017, there were 6,621 visitors from 23 countries and all 50 states. In 2013, there were 5,672 and in 2011 there were 3,295.

These statistics and others show that the passage is a healthy tourism product, Nemanic said.

"The folks you meet on the trail are probably the most respectful crowd you can bring in any area," Commissioner Gerald Walker, said.

A national memorial

The final phase of the Flight 93 National Memorial near Shanksville will be completed this year. Called the Tower of Voices, the structure will contain 40 pitched chimes, a symbolic representation of the "eternal voices" of the 40 passengers and crew members of Flight 93 who died during the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Flight 93 crashed in a field after being hijacked by terrorists. The field is now the memorial.

The memorial attracted 335,000 visitors in 2015, and 385,000 last year, according to the Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau. This year a growth of visitors is expected to continue, Nemanic said.

More hotels are a good sign

"We have made a tremendous start with 2018, Nemanic said.

The four-floor, 80-room Fairfield Inn, a part of the Marriott hotel group, will be finished and opened this spring, she said. The new hotel is located near the Pennsylvania Turnpike's Somerset Interchange in Somerset Township.

Further north, Windber is doing a feasibility study to see about adding another hotel there.

"We just have so many excellent things here. It is just a cool place," Yoder said. "There are people all over the world that don't have what we have."

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