Kentucky Tourism: Attractions Draw Crowds, Dollars

Kentucky is a top tourism spot thanks to a strong incentive plan, festivals, attractions, cultural offerings and outdoor destinations.

John Fuller
On Monday, July 1, 2013 - 16:27

In Kentucky, there's always something to do – and it's drawing visitors in droves.

The state's tourism industry, which generates nearly $11.7 billion in economic activity annually, is thriving, thanks to myriad of festivals, outdoor destinations, historic sites, cultural attractions and top sports teams, and a strong and strategic incentive program that supports tourism-related development.

“The great thing about Kentucky is people can have both big-city and rural experiences,” says Michael Mangeot, commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Travel and Tourism. “Plus, they'll never find a friendlier place.”

Kentucky Tourism Development Act

The first of its kind in the United States, the Kentucky Tourism Development Act was created in 1996. The act enables new and expanding tourism projects to reclaim up to 25 percent of development costs over a period of 10 years. Projects built on state park, federal park and national forest lands can receive up to 50 percent of development costs over 20 years.

Mangeot says the incentive has been successful, and the proof is easy to see. Several of the state's most popular and successful attractions were created through the act, among them Newport on the Levee, Kentucky Speedway in Sparta, Fourth Street Live! and 21c Museum Hotel in Louisville, and the Jim Beam American Stillhouse and Heaven Hill distilleries along Kentucky's renowned Bourbon Trail.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Seven other states have created similar tourism incentives, Mangeot says, basing their plans on the Kentucky Tourism Development Act.


In Kentucky, there's always a reason to celebrate, and signature festivals take place year round.

“If you want to come to a festival, come to Kentucky,” Mangeot says. “During one weekend this year, we had 144 festivals going on all over the state.”

One of Kentucky's biggest festivals is the Kentucky Derby Festival, which Mangeot says he considers “the granddaddy of them all.” Spanning two weeks around horse racing's most storied competition, the festival includes more than 70 special events, draws 1.5 million people and delivers an economic impact of more than $125 million.

Additional popular festivals include the World Chicken Festival, Kentucky Bourbon Festival and Festival of the Bluegrass.

Historic Sites and Cultural Attractions

Located in Hodgenville, the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site shows visitors where the 16th president grew up. Honoring Lincoln's wife, the Mary Todd Lincoln House in Lexington features 14 rooms of family portraits, furnishings and more.

In Harrodsburg, the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill is the largest restored Shaker community in the United States. The 3,000-acre area, a National Historic Landmark, includes 34 restored buildings.

For a more modern experience, visitors can hit the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, or check out a performance at the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts in Louisville.

Adventurous Activities

Spelunkers enjoy exploring Mammoth Cave National Park in central Kentucky. The longest known cave system in the world, it covers more than 390 miles.

Kentucky is also an ideal spot for water-based recreation such as boating, kayaking, canoeing, swimming and fishing.

“We've got more moving water than any state outside of Alaska,” Mangeot says. “We have Land Between the Lakes, Big South Fork and lots of other great destinations.”

Mangeot also notes that zipline operations are growing in the state. Available options include Red River Gorge Zipline, Black Mountain Thunder Zipline and Louisville Mega Cavern, the world's first and only underground zipline tour.

Sports Teams and Events

Kentucky is synonymous with horses and horse racing, and two of the sport's most fabled venues are in Kentucky – Churchill Downs in Louisville and Keeneland in Lexington. When it comes to NASCAR racing, fans head to the 107,000-seat Kentucky Speedway in Sparta, which includes a 1.5-mile track.

Basketball is also a major sport in the state, thanks to the University of Kentucky Wildcats and the University of Louisville Cardinals. In 2012, the rivalry between the teams was ranked as one of the top five rivalries in college sports by ESPN's Dick Vitale.


John Fuller has a long career in the communications business.