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Tourism plays major role in Kentucky’s economy

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When it comes to tourism, Kentucky has not one but two major factors in its favor: We have dozens of destinations that all but sell themselves, and we’re home to the nation’s population center east of the Rockies, meaning no state is closer to more Americans.

It’s a potent combination, and last week, we saw again how big of a role it plays in our state’s economy. According to a report commissioned by the state’s Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet, the industry had a total impact of $11.7 billion in 2011, which was three percent higher than in 2010.  What’s especially noteworthy is that all nine tourism regions of the state saw gains.

All told, tourism employs almost 170,000 people in Kentucky, and their salaries exceed $2.6 billion. For state and local governments, the industry also generates about $1.22 billion in tax revenue.

Tourism has been a draw for Kentucky for most of its history. It began with Mammoth Cave National Park, which became the nation’s second-oldest paid attraction, after Niagara Falls, when it first opened to the public in 1816. Now, the world’s longest cave - which, incidentally, is longer than the second and third longest caves combined - brings in 400,000 visitors annually, making it the state’s top tourist destination.

In recent months, the tourism cabinet has been highlighting other unique attractions through its “There’s Only One” advertising campaign.  Its website, www.kentuckytourism.com, features 44, ranging from Land Between the Lakes recreation area to the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green and the birthplaces of such legends as Abraham Lincoln, Rosemary Clooney and Loretta Lynn.

Another one - the Kentucky Bourbon Trail - promotes an industry that goes back to the 1700s and now bottles 95 percent of the world’s supply.  The trail, which began in 1999, has had almost two million visitors over the last five years, and in February, CNN recognized it as one of 10 “classic American experiences.”

Most if not all of these nearly four dozen one-of-a-kind locations are just a short drive from a Kentucky State Park, another key reason why our tourism numbers are so high. There are 17 parks that have a full-service lodge, and 31 have campgrounds. Although the upcoming two-year budget is especially tight, the General Assembly did increase money for state park maintenance, setting aside $6 million during that time.

In addition to our permanent attractions, Kentucky has also done quite well in recent years when it comes to special events that put the national spotlight on us. The Kentucky Derby, of course, is always a positive time for the Commonwealth, and we now have an annual NASCAR Sprint Cup race as well. We also got high marks for hosting the World Equestrian Games and golf’s Ryder Cup, and from events commemorating the 200th anniversary of President Lincoln’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War.

As the economy continues to improve, there’s every reason to believe that our tourism numbers will only continue to climb. With the end of school at hand and summer just around the corner, I encourage you to take at least a day or two out of your schedule to see more of what Kentucky has to offer.

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.