FRANKFORT – Next year, Kentucky’s tourism industry will mark a major milestone when Mammoth Cave celebrates the 200th anniversary of its first commercial tour.
The world’s longest cave is our country’s second-oldest paid attraction, trailing only Niagara Falls, and it and the surrounding national park have since become a major destination. It draws more than two million visitors a year aboveground, and about a fourth of those tour the sights below.
Now, of course, Kentucky has substantially more paid attractions – and many others that cost no more than the gas to get there.
Earlier this month, as part of National Travel and Tourism Week, the Kentucky Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet released its annual report on just how large this industry has become.
In 2014, it brought in a record $13 billion in direct and indirect spending and supported nearly 180,000 jobs, which in turned received almost $3 billion in wages. Each of the nine districts the cabinet has designated across the state saw an uptick last year, showing that the gains are widespread.
Although Kentuckians contributed a substantial amount of this money, the industry brings in a lot of out-of-state business as well. Six events that are mainly held here each year, for example, took in at least $15 million each in outside spending in 2014, with the National Farm Machinery Show and Tractor Pull leading the way with $20.1 million. Automotive-based events, in fact, took the top three spots in this category, and agriculture played a major role by being the focus of the next two.
Perhaps tourism’s biggest success story over the last 15 years has been the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, which has since split into two tours. The first features nine heritage distilleries, which are essentially in the central section of the state, and the second is known as the craft tour. It stretches from Marshall to Mason counties.
All told, the 18 sites saw a record 723,500 visits last year, and since 2007, more than 75,000 people have visited all nine heritage distilleries.
It is worth noting that Kentucky also has trails dedicated to the wine and the craft beer industries, both of which have seen a major uptick in recent years.
Food of all kind, in fact, is a major draw for tourists in Kentucky, and they could live quite well just on the centerpieces of a dozen or two festivals across the state. These events honor everything from apples, bananas and barbecue to spoonbread, gingerbread and watermelon. In one of the more unique festivals, which has now been around for 60 years, Harlan County highlights poke sallet, a wild spring leaf that has long been a staple in the South.
When it comes to sporting events, Kentucky has more going for it than a rich tradition in college basketball and football. We may not have a major sports franchise, but the Kentucky Speedway hosts an annual NASCAR race each summer, and last year, Louisville was home to the PGA championship, one of golf’s four majors. Louisville, Lexington and Bowling Green, meanwhile, have teams affiliated with Major League Baseball and Florence has a team in the independent Frontier League.
There are also some professional football squads, including one in the Women’s Football Alliance, and another team has ties to Major League Soccer.
No focus on Kentucky’s tourism would be complete without a mention of our state parks. There are 49 in throughout the commonwealth, including 17 that are resorts, and last year the system turned 90. To make sure they stay up-to-date, the current state budget includes $2 million extra for park improvements.
As good as 2014 was, there is hope that the next annual report on tourism will show that this year turned out even better. The good news is that Kentucky Kingdom is set for its second summer season since re-opening after being closed for several years. On the down side, the Future Farmers of America recently announced that its national convention, a long-time fixture for the state, is not planning a return to Kentucky anytime soon after this fall.
Finding ways to fill in that gap is arguably the biggest challenge that the state’s tourism industry faces in the near-term. Given our recent success, however – the industry grew by about $1.4 billion between 2011 and last year – there is reason to believe that we can achieve that.
If you have any suggestions, or would like to comment on other matters affecting the state, please don’t hesitate to let me know. You can write to me at Room 366B, Capitol Annex, 702 Capitol Avenue, Frankfort, KY 40601; or you can email me at Rick.Rand@lrc.ky.gov.
To leave a message for me or for any legislator by phone, please call 800-372-7181. For those with a hearing impairment, the number is 800-896-0305.
I hope to hear from you soon.