Tom Martin Q&A: Growing Kentucky tourism with an authentic experience

Contributing columnistJune 1, 2014 

The resurgence of elk in Eastern Kentucky presents one of a number of wildlife tourism opportunities for the region.

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Tourism contributed more than $12.5 billion to Kentucky's economy in 2013, a 2.6 percent increase from 2012. Tourism was responsible for 175,746 jobs in Kentucky in 2013, an addition of 1,740 jobs from the previous year. Those jobs generated more than $2.8 billion in wages.

Bob Stewart is secretary of Kentucky's Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet, a position he was appointed to by Gov. Steve Beshear in 2013. He talked with Tom Martin about some of the latest trends in Kentucky tourism.

Tom Martin: Authenticity. Is that a watch-word in tourism, adhering to what is authentic about a place?

Bob Stewart: People are really looking for experiences, when they travel now they want the experience and they want that experience to be authentic.

I know when I travel to a place that I've not been to before, I'm extremely interested in what the local customs are: how do they live? What do they eat? What are the foods that are popular here? Why are they popular? Visitors who come to Kentucky want to have that same experience.

There's now a growing intersection forming between bourbon and food. A lot of restaurants are now featuring not only an increasing number of bourbons on their bar, but they're using bourbons in their recipes and so, the foods highlight the bourbon flavor and that's a really smart thing for restaurants to do.

Martin: Kentucky is nothing if not a collection of distinct regions each with its own unique assets and characteristics. What needs to happen in Eastern Kentucky to make it become a tourist magnet?

Stewart: With the downturn in the coal economy, that region is certainly struggling. The potential is incredible. This is a prime example of the authentic experience. A lot of people say 'why don't we just have a Gatlinburg in Eastern Kentucky?' Well, there already is a Gatlinburg in East Tennessee. What we need is to grow and build on the attractions and the traditions that already are in Eastern Kentucky. One of them is the natural beauty that lends itself to adventure tourism: rafting, hiking, mountain biking and running. But it also includes things such as wildlife watching.

We have re-introduced elk into Eastern Kentucky and the elk is thriving, and that's something that we need to make more accessible for visitors and tourists. That has tremendous potential.

Birding is a tremendously popular activity for visitors and is considered outdoor or self-adventure. So, I think there's a whole watchable wildlife vein in Eastern Kentucky that we really need to do a better job of developing and promoting.

A lot of the tourism growth in Eastern Kentucky will require the support of smaller businesses, so I think there's a lot of potential for entrepreneurs who want to come in and provide the necessary equipment for people who may want to bike or rent a kayak and then hiking, so outfitters, if you will.

Martin: Tell us about Trail Town certification and what a town has to do to become certified.

Stewart: Essentially there are two towns in Kentucky that have now been certified as Trail Towns; Dawson Springs in Western Kentucky and Livingston in Eastern Kentucky, which is in Rockcastle County. To earn the Trail Town designation, a community has to go through a fairly rigorous self-examination. They have to pull together all segments of the community: the local government, the tourism interests, the local art organizations. They need their local hoteliers, their local attractions. We give them a checklist: Here are the things that you have to prove that you have in place. ...

Basically it's pulling together an inventory of all the assets of the community, making sure that they're all working together and that the trails connect to those resources so people can enjoy them.

Martin: Any examples of this so far?

Stewart: Livingston, a small community in Rockcastle County is our most recent Trail Town. When you go into Livingston you get a great welcome before you ever get out of the car because you can tell that the community is ready to welcome visitors. It's clean; there are welcoming banners hanging on the light posts as you come into town. The visitor center is the old school right in the middle of town and the trail head is right across the street from the visitor center.

If you're horseback riding you've got a place you can tie your horses temporarily while you get some information about other things to do. So Livingston is a great example. There are forty-some other communities throughout the state that are in various stages of earning their Trail Town designation, so there's a great deal of interest in this.

Music is another big component of what makes Eastern Kentucky very special, all of the country music stars that have come from Eastern Kentucky. And there's a new effort, just passed by the General Assembly this session. Sen. Robin Webb introduced a resolution that is asking us at the Tourism Cabinet to develop the Beaten Path Bluegrass Music trail. Bluegrass music originated in Kentucky. This trail will connect not just Eastern Kentucky, but will connect Western Kentucky as well because Ohio County is the birthplace of Bill Monroe, and Owensboro has been known for a long time for its bluegrass music. That's going to be something that communities who have bluegrass musicians can connect into and we hope that would bring renewed interest to visiting those places as well.

Martin: Let's talk about your interest in the connection between commerce and the arts.

Stewart: Right. I see the arts as part of our overall tourism product in Kentucky.

I'm interested in doing a better job of incorporating the arts into our overall tourism marketing efforts. My gosh, we have an incredibly rich cultural diversity and tradition in the state from one end to the other, whether it be music or crafts or the visual arts. So many important writers in the United States have come right out of Kentucky.

So, I see the arts as a very important part of our overall tourism products and I'm not sure we've always looked at the arts that way.

Martin: How do we sustain arts production in a way that enables people to make a living?

Stewart: Number one, we Kentuckians need to support our local artists and go to the performances, go to the local galleries. But we also need to bring new patrons in and expose them to our artists here in Kentucky, and the best way we can do that is through tourism. We need to make sure that the arts and our artists are front and center when we present a menu of tourism activities.

I think the local tourism commissions are doing a much better job of including the arts in their efforts and I hope that we're going to do a better job of presenting the arts and our artists from the state platform as well.

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