Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

Opinion

November 7, 2013

Great potential

Study says region can be another Gatlinburg,Tenn.

ASHLAND — While eastern Kentucky and Gatlinburg, Tenn., are seldom mentioned in the same breath, a new study commissioned by a branch of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce is convinced eastern Kentucky has the potential to become a  destination tourist area like the Tennessee town that is the gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park already is.

Is that just wishful thinking? Maybe, but this region certainly has the potential for drawing tourists, particularly those who like to mix a little adventure into their vacation, enjoy hunting or love to hike and see nature’s wonders. All it takes is a little promotion.

Of course, this region does not have a national park to draw tourists like Gatlinburg does, but a lot of visitors to both Gatlinburg and nearby Pigeon Forge spend several days enjoying shows by nationally known stars and having fun at Dollywood without ever entering the national park. While we would never recommend going to Gatlinburg without taking a drive through the Great Smoky Mountains, the fact that some people do is an indication  this region does not need a national park or other major attraction to lure visitors.

The goal of the chamber study was to assess the potential for increased tourism in eastern Kentucky. A report shows the area is well-positioned for growth.

The chamber released the report last week on the heels of an announcement by state and federal leaders that a summit would be in eastern Kentucky in December to help come up with ideas to diversify the area’s economy. Increasing tourism is likely to be among recommendations discussed during the summit, called SOAR, for Shaping Our Appalachian Region.

The study said the area includes many assets to draw tourists, including natural beauty; a rich culture and history; opportunities for outdoor recreation; and a network of state parks with excellent golf courses and campgrounds.

It also found some challenges, including a hotel inventory that isn’t diverse, several counties that have either limited or no alcohol sales, limited access to high-speed Internet and a need for better highway access.

Although the study found a variety of attractions in eastern Kentucky, it said the region lacks a “critical mass” of visitor activities.

“To create a tourism destination in eastern Kentucky, such as a modern, well-planned Gatlinburg, a diverse mix of activities will be required,” the study said. “For example, a destination that features gorgeous scenery, bluegrass music, Kentucky bourbon, local arts and crafts and multiple outdoor recreation, shopping and dining options could be very popular among visitors from Ohio, Tennessee and West Virginia, as well as Kentucky.”

From our vantage point, Pikeville is well on its way of becoming a destination city for tourism by aggressively turning what some consider negatives into positives. The notorious and deadly Hatfield and McCoy Feud is something many in this region wish had never happened and most of those same people would like to shed this region’s negative image of being populated by ignorant hillbillies. But Pikeville is hoping the feud and the hillbilly image continue to attract people to the town.

The Pikeville cut-through —the second-largest earth-moving project in the  in the western hemisphere, topped only by the construction of the Panama Canal — was dubbed the “eighth wonder of the world” by a feature in the New York Times and Pikeville — which calls itself the city that moves mountains” — is hoping tourists will flock to the town just to see this man-made wonder in the midst of striking natural wonders. The city has created the Hatfield and McCoy river ride that allows visitors to rent canoes, kayaks and large inner tubes for leisurely trips along the re-routed Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River. We’ve been told the fishing also is excellent in the shallow waters of the fork.

Some think the hillbilly image shines a negative light on this region and in some ways, they are right. We certainly don’t want to convey an image to those outside the region that we are barefoot, toothless and uneducated. But the biggest weekend of the year in eastern Kentucky is Hillbilly Days in Pikeville, which began as a celebration by the Shriners but has expanded far beyond that. A bus owned by the city of Pikeville daily takes visitors on the Hatfield and McCoy Feud Tour. When a movie based on the feud and starring Kevin Costner aired this year, the Pikeville Tourism Office’s website had more than 800,000 “hits” in the first 24 hours.

Other cities in this region also are beginning to push tourism and roads left by former logging operations now are promoted as adventure tourism attractions. Kentucky’s successful importation of elk has hunters from throughout the country and even from foreign lands flocking to this region to hunt elk. The Kentucky state parks in eastern Kentucky — Natural Bridge, Carter Caves, Greenbo Lake, Grayson Lake, Paintsville Lake, Yatesville Lake, Jenny Wiley, Pine Mountain — all offer reasons for tourists to come to the mountains.

Of course salaries in the tourism industry tend to be much lower than those in coal mining  and that’s why some area residents are reluctant to avidly promote tourism. The revenue produced by tourism is not going to replace the revenue lost by the decline in coal mining any more than raising goats, grapes and other alternative crops has replaced what farmers once earned from tobacco.

But tourism certainly can help diversify this region’s economy and has  great potential. Maybe the SOAR conference will produce better ways to reach that potential.

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