Tourism is one of the biggest money makers for Kentucky statewide. Now eastern Kentucky is starting to take advantage of its own resources and is looking to boost the region's economy through tourism.
Eastern Kentucky has plenty of land, majestic mountains and scenic rivers. All of those are filled with wildlife for viewing pleasure or sport. Tourism leaders are now looking for ways to draw more and more people into the area in order to give tourism a bigger role in the region's economy.
Elk viewing and hunting is earning more and more attention for southeastern Kentucky. "Elk are very special. Especially to southeastern Kentucky," Jenny Wiley State Resort Park's Trinity Shepherd said.
Elk were a native species to the area that were hunted out. Now that they've been reintroduced, they offer an opportunity to see the animals without traveling many miles west.
Jenny Wiley State Resort Park offers elk viewing tours September through March of each year with three or four tours each month. "We stay full 98 percent of the time," Shepherd said. He added that the money earned from tour tickets was not what brought in the most economic impact for the area: visitors spent money in gift shops, lodging facilities and restaurants as well.
"Elk opens up avenues for what is considered the off season," Shepherd noted. While the spring and summer draw people to state parks during warm weather, elk tours keep money flowing into the area's tourism industry in the fall and winter.
Shepherd says that not only does the promotion of elk in southeastern Kentucky help Kentuckians, it helps people in neighboring states as well. Not only will some travelers come through those states to get to Kentucky's elk viewing sites, but people in those states won't have to travel as far to see or hunt elk themselves.
Shepherd said that Jenny Wiley State Resort Park in Floyd County and Buckhorn State Resort Park both offer elk tours and as long as they're getting the response they are now, more tours will continue to be added.
Elk are not the only wildlife attraction the region has but they certainly are a unique one. And that uniqueness adds a lot to the value they can bring to the region monetarily and otherwise. "I just can't say enough good about the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife, coal companies for the use of their land, and the Kentucky Department of Parks for all they've done to further our education about our wildlife. Especially our elk," Trinity Shepherd said.
In addition to wildlife attractions, such as the elk, southeastern Kentucky counties are looking to promote adventure tourism in the region. The success of a trail system in Harlan County for ATVs, horseback riding, and biking has prompted other counties to get on board.
Harlan County Judge Executive Joe Grieshop said that the trails were estimated to have brought in $5 million in 2005 from visitors. In an industry growing from increased promotion and development, those millions of dollars will likely continue to come in.
"Adventure tourism is the key to eastern Kentucky's economy," Doug Hensley of Perry County Tourism said. "Down the road, coal is going to be gone." Even if coal lasts forever, tourism could bring in a lot of needed money and employment to the region.
"It's the second largest part of the state's economy," Hensley said. And he says that eastern Kentucky has the land to make it a bigger part of our region's economy.
"People like to be outdoors," Hensley noted. And he added that eastern Kentucky has the land and wildlife to allow them to be outdoors. Now work is being done to ensure public access to that land, which Hensley said is mostly owned by a few landowners.
House Bill 354 would help secure public access to private lands by providing tax credits to landowners. The bill passed the state's House of Representatives 99-0 last week and is now being considered in the Senate.
Doug Hensley says that adventure tourism would bring in money for the economy in several ways. Visitors would want access to guide services, hunts, bed and breakfasts, hotels, motels, restaurants, museums, ATVs and equipment and more. And every time they access one of those services, they drop more money into the region's economy.
According to Hensley, tourism is a $9.5 billion industry in Kentucky, half of that coming from fish and wildlife, and it only makes sense that eastern Kentucky recognizes the value of its abundance of land and wildlife. "If we don't recognize [the potential of tourism], we'll miss the boat."
Hensley says Perry County is catching that boat and is working to convert the old police barracks into a tourism welcome center to help visitors find what they're looking for. "Tourism will play a key role in our economic future."
Southeast Kentucky earned an estimated $345,317,452 in 2004 from tourism according to the Kentucky Department of Tourism. Other areas in the state made more money and some believe eastern Kentucky will with continued and increased promotion of the area's natural resources: mountains, forests, and wildlife.
Most tourism money comes from what tourists spend on food and transportation once they've been drawn to an attraction. That money then gets multiplied throughout an area's economy as it allows more dollars to be spent throughout the region, creating more jobs in shopping centers, education, museums and more. For every dollar spent in tourism, an addition 49 cents is indirectly generated.
"The sky is the limit," Doug Hensley said. Tourism can bring in more businesses and boost the ones already here if the region isn't shy about drawing attention to its available land. The more people can view the region's valleys, mountains and streams lined with tress, deer and elk, the more money southeastern Kentucky will be able to draw in.