May 20, 2008

Summer Fun Guide - My own private Kentucky (The state’s pushing tourism. Are we listening?)

Photo illustration by Frankie SteelePat Stites is a 43-year-old man whose job it is to be the voice of Kentucky tourism. He appears weekly on local television in both Louisville and Lexington, talking up some new event or another happening in the commonwealth. He is, essentially, the salesman for the state of Kentucky.And he appears to be enjoying some success. “So much is cliché in the tourism industry,” Stites said in an interview last week. “We’re seeing dividends. We’re getting thousands of hits on this website.” That website is www.mykentuckybackyard.com, an interactive oracle for the daytripper or the family of weekenders that, among other things, encourages users to recommend destinations less-than-mainstream. Stites said his office, the Kentucky Department of Tourism (most recent cut of the state’s biennial budget: $14 million), is hearing plenty of positive feedback from the private sector about the site. The “Discover Your Own Backyard” initiative is part of a multi-pronged approach to convincing the average Kentuckian — and people in Indiana, Ohio, Tennessee and Missouri, for that matter — to check out the Bluegrass before booking next year’s Spring Break condo in Florida. The official website, www.kentuckytourism.com, is as strong a guidebook as any (you lugnuts can order a printed version there, too), and has a map-oriented finder function that allows you to coordinate from a long list of interests anything you’d want to do anywhere in the state. There are goings-on that you would expect: the Bourbon Trail, Lake Cumberland, Dale Hollow, the golf courses and state parks. You could also, if the mood strikes, ride ATVs atop a reclaimed mountaintop removal mining site (Greg Stumbo would be so proud) with the nationally-renowned Harlan County Ridge Runners ATV Club (www.harlancountyridgerunnersatvclub.com). One of the last remaining wigwam villages in America is in Cave City (www.wigwamvillage.com). And if you’re up for some agritourism (and who isn’t? Kentucky had 84,000 farms in 2005, and more miles of running water than any state except Alaska), head to Cheney’s Dairy in Bowling Green, where Stites said you could watch ice cream go “from cow to cone.”Perhaps the best trip — scored on sheer oddity value — is Kentucky Down Under, an Australian-themed animal park near the Horse Cave exit off I-65. There are, in fact, kangaroos on hand. Kentucky Down Under: photo courtesy of Kentucky Down Under Instead of driving to Australia, you can save gas and meet a kangaroo at Kentucky Down Under.While the state has been naturally endowed for tourism, promotion of it hasn’t always been this coordinated. Near the end of former Gov. Ernie Fletcher’s last term, state government took interest anew in showcasing Kentucky as a tourist destination, mainly with a focus on so-called adventure tourism — perhaps understood most directly as extreme sports like hiking, rock climbing, canoeing and so forth — and Gov. Steve Beshear has kept up the cheerleading. Stites said the bump from high gas prices this summer — $4 a gallon! — is sure to be bigger than usual. “Philosophically, it’s because the gas prices are so high, we are trying to, and having substantial luck with it, energize some households to find out what’s close to home,” he said. Contact the writer at sgeorge@leoweekly.com