As summer travel season kicks into high gear, Kentucky's new tourism secretary wants you to think about staying close to home.
"I would love to challenge every Kentuckian to pick a place they have not been to go to," said Bob Stewart. "We've got 49 great state parks; Lake Cumberland's water level is back up ... . Take a drive and see something you haven't. Just pick something and go see it. Or go back to someplace you went as a child and haven't seen in years."
Stewart, a veteran Frankfort travel promoter, was appointed last month by Gov. Steve Beshear to replace Marcheta Sparrow, who retired as secretary of the Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet.
For a decade in the 1990s, Stewart served as travel commissioner. He also has chaired the Kentucky Tourism Development Financing Authority, which administers small- business loans to tourism- related businesses and determines whether they qualify for up to a 25 percent sales tax rebate. The tourism financing board recently approved up to $10 million in performance-based tax incentives for Kentucky Kingdom in Louisville to get the amusement park at the state fairgrounds back up and running in 2014.
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Stewart hopes to see more new investment in Kentucky's tourism industry by private business, he said. According to figures released by the state in May, tourism and travel contributed $12.2 billion to Kentucky's economy last year, a 4.4 percent increase from 2011.
"A healthy tourism economy is going to lead to a great quality of life and attract other types of economic investment," Stewart said. "I was there in 1996 when the Tourism Development Act passed ... It was specifically designed to incent tourism investment. It's been wildly successful. There has been over half a billion dollars of new investment come into Kentucky largely because of that legislation."
As examples Stewart cited the Newport Aquarium, Newport on the Levee and the Kentucky Speedway.
But he'd like to see more.
"That's one thing I'd like to take a look at: be as proactive as possible in marketing that Tourism Development Act and our attractiveness to get new tourism investment into the state. That keeps your product fresh. Keeps people coming back."
Kentucky should exploit the niches it can corner, Stewart said, such as horses, bluegrass and bourbon.
Owensboro, once languishing because its main hotel closed, now has two spurred by tax incentives and a revitalized riverfront, Stewart said.
"Owensboro is really booming. I was thrilled. You get a certain critical mass and all of the sudden, Owensboro is back on the map for conventions ," he said. And the city capitalizes on its connections to bluegrass through the International Bluegrass Music Museum and annual ROMP music festival in June. A new $10 million outdoor music venue has been proposed for downtown Owensboro as well.
"A bluegrass music fanatic will travel all over the world to come and hear authentic bluegrass like we have in Owensboro," Stewart said.
Stewart, who said he has just taken up hiking, wants to do more to promote Kentucky's natural adventure tourism opportunities, including trail riding on horseback.
"That's another great niche," Stewart said. "First lady Jane Beshear really championed that. People will bring their horses here and ride ... what better way to see the beauty of the state."
Bourbon gives Kentucky another unique market, he said.
"That's a niche that may be attracting a little different demographic. The typical Kentucky visitors are families with children on vacation. But the bourbon trail is attracting urban professionals, seniors and retirees, people with epicurean interests," Stewart said. "We have the corner on the market. When you say bourbon, what pops into someone's mind is Kentucky."
Social media has changed the way the state markets itself, giving Kentucky access to a much wider audience, he said.
"When I was there, the target market was the funnel of states north on I-65. And it still is, but ... now tourism is testing some new markets, such as Charlotte, N.C.," Stewart said. Paducah now considers Chicago one of its primary markets, he said.
So what Kentucky spot would Stewart like to revisit?
"I would probably go back to Lake Cumberland. Truly one of my very favorite spots. And I also love Eastern Kentucky as well. I might go to Jenny Wiley. ... The lodge at Cumberland Falls is maybe one of my favorites," he said.
Sounds like a busy summer.