With Memorial Day in sight, and summer vacations on the horizon, now is the ideal time to celebrate what Governor Beshear has declared Travel and Tourism Week.
For Kentucky, tourism is as much about business as it is about pleasure. It’s our third-largest industry and second-largest employer, and in 2007 – the latest year for which figures are available – it had a direct economic impact of $7.2 billion, a 6.5 percent increase from the year before. Tourism brought in more than $100 million in nine counties in 2007 and employed more than 1,000 people in 11 of them.
Today’s economy may force us to curtail some unnecessary expenses, but there is growing evidence that families are not giving up vacations entirely; they’re just taking them closer to home. That bodes well for Kentucky, which is closer than any other state to most of the country’s population east of the Rocky Mountains.
There certainly are a lot of activities to keep tourists busy. According to a Lexington business magazine, our top tourism draw in 2008 – Land Between the Lakes – drew 1.67 million visitors. The Six Flags theme park in Louisville was second, with the Kentucky Horse Park third.
Our festivals are widely known as well, from the just-completed Kentucky Derby Festival in Louisville and International Bar-B-Q Festival in Owensboro to the upcoming Great American Brass Band Festival in Danville.
This year, celebrations marking President Lincoln’s 200th birthday and Daniel Boone’s 275th are expected to draw a considerable number of visitors. Other unique activities bringing us acclaim include last fall’s Ryder Cup, which pits American golfers against their European counterparts, and the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, which is expected to bring in more than a half-million visitors over a two-week period, many of them from Europe.
The Kentucky Horse Park event, with a projected $150 million economic impact, is considered bigger than hosting two men’s college basketball Final Fours back-to-back.
One area of tourist growth we have seen over the last decade is in the bourbon industry. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail, modeled after similar trails used by the wine industry, now brings in nearly a half-million visitors annually to our distilleries.
A recent close look by the Department of Tourism at those who come to Kentucky from other states found some interesting things. No other state brings us more visitors than Ohio, which isn’t surprising, but we get more travelers from Florida, California and Pennsylvania than we do from Alabama, Mississippi or Georgia. There are more from Michigan than West Virginia.
Perhaps our most enduring asset in Kentucky is our state parks, which celebrate their 85th anniversary this year. They’re seeking to increase the number of guests by doing such things as teaming up with national parks, luring younger generations and promoting adventure tourism for those who prefer outdoor activities like caving, mountain-bike riding, four-wheeling or horseback riding. The General Assembly put its support behind this industry last year by making it easier for private land-owners to open their property to these activities.
Once the economy begins to improve, our tourism industry should be among the first to see the benefits. To help that along, I encourage everyone to consider spending more time at our parks, festivals and other homegrown tourist destinations. If you want to know more, the Department of Tourism has a wonderful website that offers both information and cost-saving deals. It can be found online at www.mykentuckybackyard.com.
If you have any questions or comments about this or any other aspect of state government, I would like to know. You can write to me at Room 366B, Capitol Annex, 702 Capitol Avenue, Frankfort, KY 40601.
You can also leave a message for me or for any legislator at 800-372-7181. For the deaf or hard of hearing, the number is 800-896-0305.
I hope to hear from you soon.
Representative Rick Rand