More Red River Gorge Tourism Can’t Save Eastern Kentucky
My dad pushed his old Dodge truck into the dark abyss of the Nada Tunnel, built in the early 1900s like a keyhole to the virgin woods of the forest beyond. In the aftermath of the 2008 recession, my parents took a six-month contract to manage cabins in the Red River Gorge in hopes of finding a new direction and purpose in life. We emerged from the gaping mouth of the tunnel into the shard beyond – cliffs above and tall trees as far as the eye could see. The beauty of the place became our livelihood, and we never left it.
Tourism can be, and is, an incredible asset. Too often, however, tourism becomes an uncontrollable beast that commodifies and consumes communities and places.
An example of this is evident in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Jessica Amason, an anthropology researcher at Central Washington University, observed that what remains in the wake of mass commercial tourism is not prosperity, but something akin to despair. “The result is a new kind of poverty not usually associated with Appalachia, where abandoned amusement parks are decaying and lifeless, and once-thriving motels become halfway houses for the workforce. severely underpaid in Gatlinburg,” warns Amason.
In 2013, the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce appointed a working group of bankers and businessmen to deal with the “coal meltdown” in eastern Kentucky. Down from the peak of 23,067 jobs in the EKY coal industry in 1990, there were only 9,277 jobs left.
A gargantuan crisis called for an equally important solution. The task force commissioned a study from the international engineering firm AECOM to, in the words of Charles Booth, then Speaker of the House, “Tell us if there could be a well-planned Gatlinburg in eastern Kentucky.” Mass commercial tourism was the vehicle the task force agreed on to lift the region out of disparity.
In 2019, the task force received $500,000 from the coal start-up tax with a matching grant from the state to develop the project. Yet not, as you might expect, in the coalfields where the tax originated, but in the RRG, an already thriving tourism and small business region with a historic low unemployment rate of 4% in 2021. .
The short-sightedness of this strategy is multifaceted. First, the solution does not match the size of the problem. Even if officials could catalyze the Gorge area into a “well-planned modern Gatlinburg,” it fails to address the loss of 13,790 coal jobs with an incalculable associated economic loss in Eastern Kentucky. At best, it would force a few eastern Kentucky residents to move into the gorge for low-paying, seasonally fluctuating service jobs — a far cry from meaningful careers. Second, mass commercial tourism does not provide a stable and viable economic route, even within a specific region. The real economic gain goes to financial actors outside communities while people and place fall prey to market demand. The project advances.
The approach of mass commercial tourism, while well-intentioned, is ultimately misplaced. A new solution is needed to deal with the economic crisis in Eastern Kentucky.
Scattered tourism provides such a key. Responsible tourism based on carrying capacity could serve as a driver to revitalize community and place throughout the region. Instead of a single large resort owned by wealthy out-of-town stakeholders, thousands of small businesses owned and operated by members of the local community would be more beneficial and provide a meaningful livelihood and viable. Like the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, there is great potential for areas devoted to local specialties such as music, ecology, cuisine, equestrian trails and more. The possibilities are exciting and endless.
The gorge may serve as a model of what other parts of eastern Kentucky might become, each unique and fantastic in its own way, but the gorge itself cannot be the region’s salvation. The gorge is popular with visitors and community members. Let’s work together now to give Eastern Kentucky a real chance to recover and thrive, and keep the gorge bright and beautiful.
This story was originally published June 24, 2022 8:52 a.m.