Virginia extends e-welcome

Virginia rest areas and welcome centers along major highways soon will have more to offer than bathrooms and brochures. These stops will become virtual visitor centers where travelers can go online to get directions and real-time traffic and weather information, learn about attractions, make hotel reservations and even book golf tee times.

"We believe our center is the first of its kind in the nation," said Joshua Lief, the state's deputy secretary of commerce and trade.

The goal is to promote tourism by making it easy for visitors to extend their stays or plan return vacations, he said.

The multimedia kiosks will have high-speed Internet access to the state's tourism Web site, www.virginia.org. Printers will be available so visitors can take information with them. Most noticeable will be 48-inch DVD touch-screen theaters on which tourists can watch videos about destinations in the state.

Virginia also has plans to place the kiosks in local and regional visitor centers, museums and at some private sites.

"This is meant to be scalable depending on the size of [the] facility," Lief said. "The more of them are deployed, the more integrated our tourism resources will be and the more user-friendly."

The $68,000 prototype virtual visitor center, recently on display in the state's general assembly, will be deployed at a stop on I-95 near Petersburg this spring, Lief said. State officials have targeted only a couple of other rest areas for kiosks at this point.

Funding formulas still are being worked out, Lief said. As the program expands, large attractions will be asked to help sponsor on-site kiosks, and businesses may pay extra for banners or highlights on the Web site. To ensure statewide access to the system, small or remote historical sites may not be charged to host a kiosk.

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