What role can tourism play in Eastern Kentucky's economy?

By John James Snidow

Ever since Daniel Boone and other pioneers came through Cumberland Gap (National Park Service photo), Kentucky has been a destination for those looking to get away from America’s urban areas and get closer to the great outdoors.

Today, Lake Cumberland attracts the “Ohio Navy” of houseboats that descend on the lake each summer via Interstate 75. The Bluegrass Region’s well-bred horses and just-as-well-bred bourbon whiskeys attract a substantial out-of-state following. Western Kentucky, with its big lakes and national recreation area, brings in millions of tourism dollars each year. But as Labor Day draws close, vacationers make their end-of-summer plans, and Kentucky’s mountain foliage begins to turn colorful, Eastern Kentucky still wonders when it will become a tourism hub.

Census data show that Kentucky’s Appalachian coal counties have significantly fewer food and accommodations establishments -- bellwethers of a healthy tourism economy -- and on the average, generate about 30 percent less money from tourism than the other regions. (Photo: Breaks of the Russell Fork of the Big Sandy River, Breaks Interstate Park, Kentucky & Virginia)

Eastern Kentuckians agree the region has incredible natural beauty that is able to sustain all kinds of business. The key question is whether the tourists agree. Are people really willing to spend their money and scarce vacation time in Eastern Kentucky? If so, how many, and how much?

While many political leaders push tourism as the key to the region’s development, others caution that such hopes are more flights of fancy than realistic plans for the future.

State Rep. Rocky Adkins of Sandy Hook, floor leader of the House’s Democratic majority, says that during his years as a representative the General Assembly “passed 130 million dollars in bond issues to bring new attractions to Eastern Kentucky.” Much of this money was used to build the state-park golf courses at Grayson Lake, Yatesville Lake, Pine Mountain and elsewhere. Some mountain links, like the private Raven Rock Golf Course at Jenkins (left), are on reclaimed strip mines.

Adkins recalls that when the legislature was planning to build more state-park golf courses, then-Gov. Paul Patton hauled him into the governor’s office and asked him to defend using public money for such work. “I said, ‘Governor, it’s not about playing golf. It’s about having those parts of the puzzle you need to recruit tourism and other industry.’”

But the golf courses didn’t turn out to be what Adkins and others really wanted. “We’ve seen increased at sales at the local stores around the parks, but what we really wanted was a Marriott-type company to locate here,” he said. “We haven’t seen that yet.”

Peter Hille, director of Berea College’s Brushy Fork Institute, says Kentucky’s government hasn’t done enough to attract those kinds of developments. “West Virginia and North Carolina have non-profits and tourism boards that are spending tons of money to promote their states,” Hille said. “You just don’t see enough of that in the coal counties here.”

University of Louisville economist Paul Coomes agrees. “North Carolina and West Virginia are both really killing Kentucky in tourism,” he says. “We don’t have a real-estate magnet here. We have golf courses, but no second homes or hotels there. Where does someone go for a four-day golf outing and have some parties with their friends? Not Kentucky, that’s for sure.”

To attract those second-home buyers, Adkins wants to use Kentucky’s reservoirs and their golf courses to create waterfront vacation communities, an approach that has worked well for communities on Tennessee Valley Authority lakes in Tennessee and Alabama. “Kentucky has miles of undeveloped coastline, and we need to be using them,” Adkins says. “We need to develop our lakefronts to attract people from out of the state and to attract real estate development.”

However, Kentucky’s lakes are run mostly by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which owns the lakeshores and discourages their development, to protect water quality. Adkins says he and others are “working with the COE to change that. It has to be done right, but if this happens, it will have huge economic impact for the region.” (Army Corps of Engineers photo: Grayson Lake, dam and state-park boat dock)

To better compete with Kentucky’s neighbors, the administration of Gov. Steve Beshear is also looking to tourism – of a higher octane. In fact, “adventure tourism” on motorized vehicles forms a large part of Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo’s platform in his campaign for the Democratic nomination to the U.S. Senate. “Adventure tourism absolutely can provide an economic base on which to found a sustainable economy,” said Mongiardo, a Hazard physician. “We can build ATV, hiking and horseback trails here, all across the state, that will bring tourists and their money here.”

Gil Lawson of the state Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet says “The adventure tourism initiative can create a new market in lots of communities – hiking and biking, ATVs, restaurants and service industries will spring up to cater to these visitors,” and Kentucky’s central location, within a day’s drive of two-thirds of the country’s population, gives it an advantage over regions that rely on air travel. “Even in bad economic times, there are enough unique places in Eastern Kentucky to attract people to the region.”

Beshear agrees. “Adventure tourism has proven to be successful in any number of areas around the country,” the governor said when asked about it this summer. “When you look at the beauty and resources we have in Eastern Kentucky in our mountains and in our streams, it is a natural fit. If people are going to enjoy the outdoors, there is no better place to do it than here.” (Photo from Kentucky Mountain Crawlers)

But those who want to transition the region's economy from coal to tourism argue that the environmental and landscape damage from mining causes prevents tourism development. “Our mountains are the assets that we have in this region, and we have to stop destroying those assets with mountaintop-removal mining,” says University of Kentucky historian Ron Eller, author of a new book on the modern Appalachian economy.

Coal advocates preach caution. Mongiardo defends mountaintop removal, and state Sen. Robin Webb, D-Grayson, says that while recent initiatives like the elk herd developed on reclaimed mines “bring in people, and they spend money here,” she worries about the economy-wide effects of moving to a tourism-based economy. “Coal miners in my district make $70,000 a year,” she says. “You can’t just move from those types of jobs to seasonal service jobs at low wages with no benefits. The tax effects alone would be pretty bad.”

And that’s just the beginning, Webb says. “The incidentals to coal mining are huge. You’ve got river, rail, truck drivers, barges. If you’ve got 14,000 mining jobs, you’ve also got guys selling lubricants, tires and everything else to them. You don’t get those with tourism.”

Additionally, as former Patton and others point out, the Appalachia of West Virginia’s and North Carolina’s tourist-heavy regions is very different from the Appalachia of Kentucky. “For starters, our mountains are much smaller,” he says. “Pikeville is not much higher than Lexington.” In fact, the only Kentucky features that meet the geological definition of “mountain,” at least 2,000 feet above the surrounding terrain, are the Pine, Black and Cumberland mountains, which occupy only a small portion of southeastern Kentucky. What most Kentuckians call “the mountains” is largely the Cumberland Plateau, so heavily eroded over millions of years that it is mountainous. And unlike almost every other mountainous region in the world, Eastern Kentucky’s mild climate and relatively low elevation prevent the development of skiing and other alpine sports.

But some say those issues are not insurmountable. “Take for example the areas around Hendersonville and Brevard” in North Carolina, Coomes says. “Those areas . . . are not on top of the mountains, but they have cold streams and vistas, and they have more population now than 20 to 30 years ago because of tourists and second homes. Mountains or not, as this country becomes more affluent, there will be tons of people who want to visit and retire in beautiful places. Kentucky could be one of them because we really do have beautiful places.” (Photo: Honeymoon Falls, Pine Mountain State Park)

Tour Southern and Eastern Kentucky is a tourism-development agency serving the counties represented or formerly represented by Fifth District U.S. Rep. Harold "Hal" Rogers of Somerset. For its Web site, click here.

This is the third in a series on the Appalachian economy by John James Snidow, a native of Ashland and 2009 economics graduate of Harvard College, for the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based at the University of Kentucky. Reach him at Snidow@gmail.com. Reach Institute Director Al Cross at al.cross@uky.edu.

Institute for Rural Journalism & Community Issues
School of Journalism and Telecommunications, College of Communications & Information Studies
122 Grehan Building, University of Kentucky, Lexington KY 40506-0042
Phone 859-257-3744 - Fax 859-323-3168

Al Cross, director al.cross@uky.edu

Last Updated: 09/01/2009