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Kentucky tourism looks to rebound after devastating 2020

The bourbon tourism industry was hit particularly hard, with the Kentucky Bourbon Trail seeing a 66% drop in attendance in 2020.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Kentucky tourism is looking to rebound after a devastating 2020 with a series of action steps that are expected to pave the way back towards success.

"Kentucky stands at the threshold of being thought of as a tourism state just like it's thought of as a coal state," said Hank Phillips, the president and CEO of the Kentucky Travel Industry Association.

According to Phillips, tourism saw record numbers in 2019, generating $11.2 billion and 95,000 jobs throughout the state. But with the coronavirus pandemic shutting everything down in March 2020, those numbers drastically dropped with most places seeing their visitors cut by at least 50%.

The bourbon tourism industry was hit particularly hard, with many distilleries shut down for at least four months during what are traditionally its busiest months during the spring and summer. Kentucky Distillers Association President and CEO Eric Gregory said distilleries on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail saw a 66% drop in attendance, marking the first time on the Trail's 21-year history that it saw a decrease in the number of visitors.

"We went from about 1.7 million tourists a year to just barely 600,000," Gregory said.

The KTIA has issued an action plan to help the state's tourism industry recover. The Recovery Actions for Tourism, or RAFT, is a collection of more than 40 recommendations aimed to boosting the different sectors of the tourism industry as the state and country continues to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

"We know this industry will recover," Phillips said. "But we also know that the speed and strength of that recovery will be aided by planning and strategic thinking."

Among the recommendations are several pieces of legislation. Some have already been met, like gaming legislation for historical horse racing, which passed earlier this month. Another legislative goal for RAFT and the Kentucky Distillers Association would allow restaurants to continue selling carry-out cocktails, which were implemented as a temporary measure during the pandemic. 

"That will aid our restaurants," Phillips said. "That will aid the whole supply line, production line of bourbon and wine and craft breweries in the state."

"That's really been a benefit to our restaurant partners and something that consumers have found very popular," Gregory said.

Another recommendation is to put an emphasis on health and safety precautions in marketing materials.

"We as an industry need to be pushing and promoting people to get vaccinated, as much of the population as possible as quickly as possible," Phillips said.

"Then it really becomes a consumer confidence issue — when do people feel comfortable again about visiting and traveling?" Gregory said.

Phillips and Gregory said leisure travel will likely start picking up late this summer or early this fall.

More information on RAFT can be found here.

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