No matter when spring falls on a calendar, it doesn’t feel like it truly hits its stride until the first Saturday of May, when the greatest two minutes in sports sends another Kentucky Derby winner into the history books.
While all eyes were on the commonwealth earlier this week, the truth is that our single most-recognized tourism draw is only the start for those wanting something to do that is fun, relaxing or educational – or a mixture of all three. Since Saturday also kicked off National Travel and Tourism Week, now is a good time to take a broad look at all that we have to offer.
To begin with, the industry plays a significant role in our economy, with travelers spending more than $800 billion nationally. About $12 billion of that occurs in Kentucky.
In 2011, the Kentucky Department of Travel and Tourism kicked off an innovative campaign to highlight places or events that can only be found here. There were 31 originally, but the department added eight more last fall.
Some of the new ones range from the Duncan Hines Festival in Bowling Green – which celebrates a native Kentuckian whose name is now synonymous with cake mixes – to the world’s only shark ray-breeding program at the Newport Aquarium.
The original list, meanwhile, features such understandable destinations as Mammoth Cave, which will mark 200 years of tours in 2016; Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace; and the Kentucky Horse Park, which turns 35 this year.
Others include the world’s smallest church, which was built in Kenton County in 1878 by Benedictine monks and measures a tiny 54 square feet; and several national museums featuring quilts, the Louisville Slugger bat and the Corvette.
The state’s Bourbon Trail has proven to be extremely popular since its inception in 1999. A record 500,000 visitors took in at least one of the distilleries last year, while the industry filled more than one million barrels in 2012, the first time in 40 years it has broken that barrier. Altogether, nearly five million barrels are aging in distillery warehouses.
Adventure tourism is another facet of the industry that is relatively new, though many of its activities are timeless. We have more than 1.5 million acres of land open to hunting, for example, and more running water than any state but Alaska. Complementing those are 50-plus lakes big enough for fishing and boating. Those include Lake Cumberland, which this summer will see water levels return toward normal after they had to be lowered nearly six years ago for critical dam repairs ultimately costing almost $600 million.
For those who want something quicker than hiking, there are five major zip-line tours now available across the state, with most in our region and Louisville’s holding the distinction of being the only one in the world entirely underground.
There are also several unique events coming up soon that will put Kentucky back in the spotlight. The third-annual NASCAR Sprint Cup race will be held at the Kentucky Speedway in late June; and Louisville’s Valhalla Golf Club will host the 96th PGA Championship in August 2014. The state is also in the middle of a four-year schedule of events tied to commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.
A special day for the commonwealth will be Aug. 21, 2017, when the world’s attention will fall on Hopkinsville, which will be the best place around the globe to witness what will be the United States’ first full solar eclipse in more than 30 years. In a nod to the Kentucky Derby, officials there are calling it “the most exciting two minutes and 40 seconds in astronomy.”
With school nearly out, I encourage you to think about taking a trip across the state and visit some of our one-of-a-kind locations, which also include more than 50 state parks. It’s worth pointing out that we’re easy to reach as well for other travelers, since the country’s population center east of the Rocky Mountains is in southeastern Kentucky. In other words, no other state is closer to more people than we are, which is why we’re often called the nation’s heart.
If you want to know more about all that we have to offer, please visit www.kentuckytourism.com.