Kentucky’s Appeal as a Tourism Destination

By John Gregory | 2/27/17 8:00 PM

From fabric arts and fine dining in the west, to adventure sports in the east, the commonwealth provides natives and tourists enough diverse travel opportunities to fill a long weekend or a full vacation.

Kentucky Department of Travel and Tourism Commissioner Kristen Branscum appeared on KET’s Connections to discuss just a few of the destinations and attractions the state has to offer.

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Arts, Crafts, and Carp in Paducah
For those willing to venture beyond the iconic bluegrass region of central Kentucky, a host of treasures awaits travelers.

“We are pretty much known for bourbon and horses,” Branscum says. “But I think that’s a great entry point into getting to the state to learn more about us.”

Branscum starts her tour of the commonwealth in Paducah. The town of 25,000 people at the confluence of the Ohio and Tennessee rivers is known for its National Quilt Musuem. But Branscum says Paducah has parlayed that one attraction into an international reputation as a haven for arts and crafts.

“Paducah is taking those old industrial buildings from their river traffic and re-creating a tourism destination like no other,” Branscum says.

Warehouses and lofts in the city’s revitalized LowerTown district now serve as homes and galleries for an array of artisans and craftspeople. The Paducah School of Art and Design has state-of-the-art facilities for those studying painting, ceramics, photography, and other artistic endeavors. This focus on arts and crafts has netted Paducah a UNESCO Creative City designation – one of only six American communities to receive that honor.

And with good art comes great food. As an example, Branscum highlights a unique dish served at Paducah’s Freight House restaurant. On the menu it’s listed as Kentucky snapper. In reality it’s Asian carp, the invasive species that’s threatening to overtake native freshwater fish in American rivers and lakes. Freight House gets Asian carp from a local processor who’s working on transforming the fish into the next culinary delicacy.

“It’s that full circle of a great tourism destination, local food, local food story, and helping eradicate a species that we need to get out of our waterways,” says Branscum.

Barbecue and Bluegrass in Owensboro
About two hours northeast of Paducah is another great Ohio River town. Branscum says Owensboro has long been a barbecue mecca, and now the city is continuing to develop its music scene with the International Bluegrass Museum, which is scheduled to reopen in 2018. The community even has a new bourbon distillery that offers tours to the public.

Branscum says Owensboro is an additional example of a Kentucky community working to revitalize its downtown by combining tourist attractions, local foodways, and engaging nightlife.

“That’s great for tourists but it’s so great for our local people – it’s good for quality of life and that’s also good in recruiting new businesses,” Branscum says. “That’s the great thing about tourism: It’s good for everybody.”

In fact tourism contributed nearly $14 billion to the state’s economy in 2015 alone. That makes tourism the third largest revenue-generating industry in Kentucky behind auto manufacturing and health care, according to Branscum.

As she looks to future vacation seasons, Branscum says her department is preparing to make a big push for food-related attractions starting next year. She says 77 percent of all travelers consider themselves culinary tourists, and Kentucky stands poised to serve them any number of dishes, drinks, and food traditions that are unique to the commonwealth.

Promoting the Mountains
Another area of focus for the department is promoting adventure tourism in eastern Kentucky to Europeans. Branscum says Germans especially love outdoor adventures such as hiking, biking, and all-terrain vehicle trails. She points to Pikeville as a community that combines mountain hospitality with opportunities to zipline, horseback ride, and canoe.

With the decline in the coal industry, Branscum says domestic and international travelers can provide a critical boost to the region’s economy.

“We know there’s issues and things that we’ve got to overcome, but I think tourism can help do that,” says Branscum.

Efforts are still ongoing to conduct much needed renovations and maintenance to state park facilities in the state. Branscum says updated estimates put the price tag for those repairs at $300 million. She believes the park system will attract corporate money to help with that work now that state law allows public-private partnerships for such projects.

She also hopes legislation that gives Kentucky school districts incentives to delay the start of their school years passes the General Assembly this session. Branscum says that will enable young people to work longer at summer jobs at Lake Cumberland, the state fair, agri-tourism operations, and other attractions that depend on seasonal labor. She says it will also give Kentucky families more time to visit those destinations before schools reopen for the fall.