Thursday, January 23, 2003

Tourism dips in Ky. except for 2 national parks

The Associated Press

FRANKFORT - Preliminary figures for Kentucky tourism last year show a decline of 2 percent to 4 percent from 2001, while the two regions of the state with national parks showed some gains in the second and third quarters.

Tourism in Kentucky's third-largest industry at $8.7 billion a year, behind automobile manufacturing and other transportation equipment, and health services.

Final state figures for 2002 won't be available until May, but the state Department of Travel said early data showed small increases for the areas around Mammoth Cave and Cumberland Gap national parks.

"I think there were a couple of factors at work," said Barbara Atwood, assistant director of the department's Division of Marketing and Advertising. "There was that patriotic feeling that people wanted to go and visit things that represented our country, and obviously a national park is one of the things that come to mind.

"On another level, it was more of nostalgia. We were hit really hard in 2001" because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, she said. "People kind of wanted to return to the vacations of their past that they remembered."

Nationwide, leisure travel increased 2 percent during the first half of last year, and Americans took more trips closer to home, the Washington-based Travel Industry Association of America said. Trips to locations within the same region were up 8 percent in the first half of 2002.

Officials say tourists spent $5.3 billion on lodging, meals, visitor attractions, gas and shopping in Kentucky in 2001. The other $3.4 billion included goods and services supplied to travel-related businesses.

For the Mammoth Cave region, tourism was up 6.6 percent in the second quarter, compared with a year earlier. In the Cumberland Gap region, it was up 8 percent in the second quarter and 6.4 percent in the third quarter.

Kentucky's national parks attract tourists for several reasons. Both are located on or near major interstate highways, making them easily accessible and attractive for day visits.

Also, tours and camping are more affordable for families than other attractions and hotel stays. Both parks offer cave tours and miles of hiking trails.

Most of the 1.5 million annual visitors to Cumberland Gap National Historical Park are tourists taking day trips, said park Ranger Carol Borneman. The park sits in Bell and Harlan counties in Kentucky's southeastern corner and spills over into Virginia and Tennessee.

Kentucky's tourism picture isn't as bad as it could be because the state has never relied heavily on air travel, which hasn't recovered since the 2001 attacks, Ms. Atwood said.

While state tourism officials are optimistic about a better year in 2003, "there is a lot of uncertainty" given ongoing threats of terrorism and the possibility of war with Iraq, Ms. Atwood said.

"The whole travel industry is being driven by things that are totally out of our control," she said.

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