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When Kentucky first got into the tourism business, James Monroe was on track to become the country’s fifth president, Daniel Boone was still alive and a 7-year-old boy named Abraham Lincoln was preparing to move from here to Indiana with his family.
Many things have changed since 1816, of course, but that first attraction – Mammoth Cave – still remains one of the most-visited places in Kentucky, with more than 400,000 people traveling there each year. Among the nation’s parks, only Niagara Falls has drawn paid visitors for a longer time.
The industry has come a long way since then. Governor Beshear announced last week that tourism’s total economic impact topped $11 billion in 2010, a nearly five percent increase from 2009. Given the tough economy, it appears many more families are staying close to home and exploring what the Commonwealth has to offer.
Most of that figure comes from the 3,550 businesses across the state that serve visitors, from hotels and historic sites to restaurants and race tracks. The remainder comes from the additional economic growth these businesses generate.
Altogether, tourism provides almost 170,000 jobs, which is about 2,600 more than in 2009, and they paid more than $2.5 billion in wages. Tourism also generated about $1.19 billion in tax revenue for state and local governments last year.
The growth was spread fairly evenly across the nine regions recognized by state tourism officials, though some -- such as Central Kentucky, which hosted the World Equestrian Games last fall -- did better than others. Only one saw a decline last year.
Over the last dozen years, Kentucky has done a good job of expanding what is offered. A law enacted in the mid-1990s, for example, made it much easier to build such destinations as the Newport Aquarium and the Kentucky Speedway, which will begin hosting a NASCAR Sprint Cup race in July that is expected to generate $150 million annually.
In other innovations, several hundred farms have opened their gates to agritourism; the Bourbon Trail that began in 1999 has logged 1.5 million visits in the last five years alone; and adventure tourism is getting more people across the state to climb, hike, horseback ride and four-wheel. We really hit the bulls eye this past weekend, when nearly 7,000 students from several dozen states took aim in the Kentucky Fair and Exposition Center for what was the world’s largest archery competition.
In addition to the World Equestrian Games and the NASCAR race, Kentucky has also brought in numerous visitors in recent years for such things as golf’s Ryder Cup and events tied to the 200th anniversary of President Lincoln’s birth.
The off-beat can be a draw as well. There’s Colonel Sanders’ first Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in Corbin; the country’s first archeological dig in Northern Kentucky for such large prehistoric animals as wooly mammoths; and what many ghost hunters consider one of the most haunted places in the country: Waverly Hills, a former tuberculosis hospital in Louisville.
As we work to build on tourism’s gains, there are some challenges to overcome. High gas prices make it more difficult to take even relatively short day trips, while Louisville’s Kentucky Kingdom, long one of the state’s top tourist destinations, remains closed as its owners look for ways to re-open it as soon as possible. If these can be overcome, we stand to see an even better year for tourism in 2011.
If you have any thoughts about this, or anything else involving state government, please let me know. I hope to hear from you soon.
Rick Rand, D-Bedford, represents the 47th House District in the Kentucky General Assembly. He may be reached by writing to Room 351C, Capitol Annex, 702 Capitol Avenue, Frankfort, KY 40601, or leave a message at (800) 372-7181 – TTY (800) 896-0305.