Kentucky has more navigable miles of water than any state in the union, other than Alaska, although starting with only three small, naturally occurring lakes. Its many massive manmade bodies of water, however, attract millions of boating, fishing, paddlesporting, swimming and otherwise recreating visitors every year.
Those lakes are major contributors to the $13.7 billion estimated total economic impact in 2015 attributed to the collective sectors under the Kentucky Cabinet of Tourism, Arts and Heritage.
Kentucky tourism generated more than $1.43 billion in taxes, with $184.9 million going directly to local communities.
“I truly love all of our lakes in the state, because each of them has its own personality and special beauty,” reflected Kristen R. Branscum, commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Travel & Tourism. “One of my favorite lake memories from when I was a kid was each summer tying up a houseboat to one of the many islands out in Lake Cumberland. It was like having our own private island where we could swim during the day and have a campfire at night. There’s nothing more peaceful in this world than looking out over a completely still lake at night with no light but the moon and the stars.”
The passion reflected in that statement carried Branscum into her present job, helping drive a sector where the state is seeing exciting growth. While there are no lakes-only economic impact numbers, growth in the Southern Shorelines tourism region that includes Lake Cumberland area is easy to explain. A six-year, $600 million repair project to stop seepage at Wolf Creek Dam was completed in 2013 and water levels kept at 680 feet while work took place are back above 710 feet.
“In 2007 when the (U.S. Army) Corps (of Engineers) took the water levels down for the dam repair, anecdotally we saw tourism decrease by about 10 percent the next year,” Branscum said. “In 2012 there was more of an uptick, and in 2013 we saw the economic impact of the Kentucky’s Southern Shorelines region at $297,608,982. In 2014, the region grew again to $304,759,386 million, and our newly released 2015 numbers show an increase by almost 3 percent to $313,428,414.”
All nine tourism regions showed revenues gains in 2015, but the commonwealth’s Caves, Lakes and Corvettes tourism region in 2015 had the largest increase at 6.9 percent. This region – including Nolin River Lake, Dale Hollow Lake, Lake Malone State Park and Barren River Lake – registered an $664.2 million economic impact.
However, it was the Western Waterlands Region just to the west that made Kentucky tourism’s biggest financial wave, accumulating an $871.8 million economic impact. Western Waterlands includes arguably the most state’s most popular lakes, Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley, which are connected by a canal, making them together the largest body of manmade water east of the Mississippi River. The 170,000 acres between the two lakes is Land Between The Lakes National Recreation Area.
“We’re a great outdoor adventure area,” said Randy Newcomb, executive director of the Kentucky Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau. “There’s the huge lake, of course. It’s great for fishing and boating, and it’s a nice place for families to come and visit. Even when I got out to the lake for an event, it just puts you in a better, relaxing mood.”
Kentucky Lake’s economic impact for Marshall County alone in 2015 was estimated at nearly $133 million.
“The biggest draw is Kentucky Lake, Lake Barkley and Land Between the Lakes,” Newcomb said. “That’s the big draw, and of course the downtown Paducah area. All of that together pulls people to our area.”
Visitors are coming in throngs still, but Newcomb said he’s seen visit duration decrease.
“We’ve seen a great number of people coming to our area, but the change is, they’re not staying as long,” he said. “Ten years ago people would stay for a whole week. The trend now is they’re coming in for three or four days – more of a getaway. But we’re getting more people. We’re getting them for less of a time, but we are getting more of them.”
Kayaking and paddle boarding on the lake are increasing, he said, and fishing continues to picking up every year, too. The biggest group, he said, are classified simply outdoor adventurists who want to be on the water and use the recreation area in Land Between the Lakes.
“We’re an affordable vacation, you don’t have to spend thousands and thousands of dollars to take your family on a vacation. That’s a far cry from if you want to go to Disney.”
Similarly, Lake Cumberland has a “weekend warrior” feel to it, said Carolyn Mounce, executive director of Somerset-Pulaski County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“‘Weekend warriors’ probably account for a little larger percentage of our summer visitors,” she said. “Overall, we are seeing an increase in visitors coming for other reasons. Attendance at sporting events like fishing tournaments, Little League baseball and high school basketball tournaments and golf is getting stronger.”
The Master Musicians Festival, Somernites Cruise and other festivals also bring in huge crowds. Flashback Theater and Lake Cumberland Performing Arts bring plays and other performing arts to the Center for Rural Development and Carnegie Community Arts Center throughout the year, she said, while history buffs like Mill Springs Battlefield, Zollicoffer Park, Mill Springs Mill Park, and the Brown-Lanier and West-Metcalfe Houses.
“Although we are primarily known for Lake Cumberland, visitors are discovering how much more there is to our area,” Mounce said.
The 2015 tourism economic impact numbers for the five counties bordering Lake Cumberland – Pulaski, Russell, Wayne, McCreary and Clinton – was $224.8 million. Pulaski County had more than half at $125.4.
“These numbers show that the Lake Cumberland Region grew by about 3 percent last year,” Mounce said. “In fact, our area has grown every year since 2013.”
The lake returned to normal operations in 2014.
“Many visitors who opted to visit other lakes have returned to Lake Cumberland, and we are happy to have them back,” Mounce said. “The normal (water level) elevations have resulted in increased tourism across the Lake Cumberland Region. Our visitors are returning in droves and loving every minute. Even though lake-oriented venues did see some decrease, we are fortunate in our area to have ‘out of the water’ options.”
Cumberland is unique for its terrain, being of the deepest lakes with steep banks and clear, clean water, she said. Behind the 256-foot-tall dam is more than 1,250 miles of shoreline, creating hundreds of coves for houseboaters to tie-up in seclusion.
Standup paddleboarding, also known as SUPing, is gaining popularity, Mounce said, and the houseboating sector remains a major sector across Lake Cumberland
“Camping has seen a real increase in the last several years, as has hiking, kayaking, and other outdoor adventure sports and activities,” she said. “Everyone can be happy at the lake, and that’s something you cannot find everywhere,” she noted. “Kentucky is unique in that you can get to a lake or a major river in pretty much every region of the state. We are blessed with an abundance of waterways to enjoy.”
The state could be better at marketing its lakes, both Branscum and Mounce agreed
“The state really needs to increase the marketing dollars at the Department of Travel and Kentucky State Parks,” Mounce said. “The City of Gatlinburg has a larger marketing budget than the entire Commonwealth of Kentucky.”
Earlier this year Gov. Matt Bevin announced an $18 million funding injection into Kentucky State Parks. In late June, the state was taking steps to improve its marketing image library with new photography, video and drone footage of lake activities.
The Explore Kentucky Initiative is a nonprofit organization that, among other roles, helps people plan adventure trips around the state and educates them on strategies to get involved and see Kentucky in new ways.
Gerry James, director of the initiative, is known for leading groups to out-of-the-way destinations and urging them to explore. One of his personal favorites is a lesser known Fish Trap Lake in Pike County. Also, though it is somewhat popular now, James said he would love to see Cave Run Lake in Eastern Kentucky “get more love.” It is home to its own sailing association, he said, and the lake’s picturesque remoteness is hard to find anywhere else.
The area at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers includes the 458-acre Axe Lake Swamp State Nature Preserve, which has been recognized as a priority wetland in the North American Waterfowl Management Plan. The Ballard Bottoms Tourism Council is working to promote the area’s kayaking, canoeing, hunting and fishing opportunities in the county’s currently unused resource.
Abby Laub is a correspondent for The Lane Report. She can be reached at [email protected].