Tom Eblen

Travel, food sites are gushing over Lexington. Why it matters that we’re a ‘must-visit.’

TripAdvisor lists Lexington as a top destination for 2018.
TripAdvisor lists Lexington as a top destination for 2018.

In a state and nation where so much seems to be going wrong, Lexington is obviously doing something right.

In the past month, two major travel websites, TripAdvisor and Zagat, plus Vogue magazine and the New York City newspaper Newsday, have put Lexington on their lists of places people should visit this year.

Who knew our home could become trendy?

Recognition like this is good for civic ego, and more visitors spending more money here is obviously good for the economy. But I think the significance goes much deeper.

Here is what these publications and websites had to say:

TripAdvisor’s blurb about Lexington as one of 10 “Top Destinations on the Rise” mentions horses, of course. “But you don’t have to be an avid racehorse fan to enjoy the natural beauty, culture and history that this exciting city has to offer,” it said, citing Raven Run Nature Sanctuary and the historic house museums Waveland, Ashland and the Mary Todd Lincoln House.

Vogue’s article “From Florida to Idaho: 9 U.S. Destinations to Visit in 2018” notes the transformation of a historic downtown building into the 21c Museum Hotel, and it touts bourbon, craft breweries and food. “There’s plenty of reason for gourmands to visit the Bluegrass State’s leading city,” the magazine said, and it wasn’t referring to Louisville.

Zagat ranked Lexington No. 26 on its list of the “30 Most Exciting Food Cities in America,” citing a host of local eating and drinking establishments.

Like Vogue, Zagat noted The Barn, the new food hall at The Summit development, and gave a big shout-out to chef Ouita Michel. Zagut also mentioned MasterChef star Dan Wu, chef Jonathan Lundy and the fact that Dudley’s On Short won one of Southern Living magazine’s Best in the South awards.

Newsday listed Lexington as one of 12 global “destinations to visit” in 2018, citing “120 locally owned restaurants” and “impressive street-art murals by international artists.” The newspaper called Lexington “one of the most underrated Southern destinations, but definitely a must-visit location this year.”

See horse racing fans cheer during the sixth race Friday at Keeneland during the opening day of the fall meet.

While it’s easy to be cynical about this sort of stuff, a city can’t buy this kind of publicity. It creates buzz that not only attracts visitors but can be leveraged for economic development and quality-of-life improvements. People don’t just want to visit beautiful, interesting and fun places — they want to live in them, too.

Here is the lesson for Lexington, as well as the smaller communities that surround it: Play to your strengths and preserve and develop the assets you have. That means horses, bourbon, scenic beauty, agriculture, history, historic buildings and a culture of hospitality.

Bluegrass country has a brand, and this publicity demonstrates that it is a brand that outsiders find attractive. And rather than being limiting, the brand can be empowering.

What attracted this media attention was recent innovation that springs from an authentic regional culture and identity. So you have to think: What other forms could that innovation take?

Obviously, there is room for more innovation in tourism and hospitality. With initiatives such as Horse Country, the Thoroughbred industry is getting more creative about telling its story and building racing’s fan base. Bourbon tourism gets bigger every year, and craft breweries are now getting into the act.

Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort has opened a new 'Bourbon Pompeii' tour where tour visitors can walk catwalks installed above tanks and vats used to make bourbon over 100 years ago.

Central Kentucky’s history is rich with fascinating stories and colorful characters, many of which locals don’t even know about. What innovative approaches could local museums and other organizations develop to attract larger audiences for these stories? (Don’t laugh. Who could have imagined that a hip-hop musical about Alexander Hamilton would become a Broadway sensation?)

Perhaps our most under-utilized natural resource is the Kentucky River and its rugged Palisades region. Finding new environmentally responsible, low-impact ways of sharing this treasure with nature-lovers, hikers and paddlers is a no-brainer. The Palisades already have several great nature preserves, and the Boone Creek canopy tour shows what other innovations are possible.

Central Kentucky’s scenic country roads already are a popular destination for road cyclists from around the country. What more could be done to promote, develop and make cycling safer and more popular for both tourists and locals? If you don’t think there is money in this tourism segment, check the prices of high-end road bicycles.

Beyond tourism, what other business sectors would be natural fits for Central Kentucky? Alltech has found opportunity here in high-tech animal nutrition research, as well as brewing and distilling. Sustainable agriculture and organic food are becoming more popular, so why not develop the fertile Bluegrass region as the center for innovation in that field? It would be a perfect tie-in for Lexington’s growing reputation for food and drink.

If there is anything the past few years have shown Lexington, it is that the key to success is not tearing down your history and paving over your landscape to grow like every other city; it is figuring out how to become a fresher, more creative, more compelling version of what you have always been.

Tom Eblen: 859-231-1415, @tomeblen