FILE - OH, KY border welcome sign Cincinnati 4-24-2019

Welcome signs greet travelers between Ohio and Kentucky at the state boundary at Cincinnati.

(The Center Square) – Kentucky’s travel and tourism sector is still on the road to recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, and as Hank Phillips described, that road has gotten a little bumpier as of late.

The recovery had been progressing smoothly until the past few months. That’s when inflation rates spiked to 40-year highs, and gas prices in parts of the state hit $5 gallon. That wasn’t the only travel issue plaguing the industry, as numerous airlines have had their share of disruptions.

“We’re in an era of, it feels like, if it’s not one thing, then it’s another,” Phillips, the president and CEO of the Kentucky Travel Industry Association, told The Center Square. “It’s a game of whack a mole.”

He added people are still traveling now, but they’re taking shorter trips and going to places closer to home. While he said Kentucky is still doing well, the recovery has slowed.

Help is on the way.

The state has $75 million in federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act designed to help the state’s tourism industry. That money will be divvied into four pots, with $15 million going toward marketing Kentucky as a tourist destination.

Anita Hatchett, executive director for the Kentucky Tourism, Arts and Heritage’s Office of Public Affairs, told The Center Square in an email that money will be used to increase regional, national and international marketing to attract visitors across several sectors of the travel industry. That includes initiatives targeted toward families of color and the LGBTQ+ community.

The money will also promote Kentucky State Parks and the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington.

In addition, $25 million will be set aside for grants for local tourism commissions, and the state will take applications for those funds beginning Monday. Another $25 million will be allocated for landing meetings and conventions, a segment of the tourism industry that COVID hit particularly hard. The application period for those funds starts Aug. 8.

The final pot of $10 million can be used by Kentucky counties that partner for promotional efforts to regional attractions and destinations. Applications for those funds will be taken starting on Sept. 12.

Phillips said Kentucky tourism has a bright future, especially with the funding.

“We are much more in the game, much more competitive, and will be over the course of the next couple of years with these additional funds,” he said.

The funding plan is not that far from a proposal Phillips and other Kentucky travel leaders proposed to state lawmakers a year ago.

Gov. Andy Beshear issued a press release detailing the funding allocation, a move that drew criticism from Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, who said he rallied Republican support for the plan forward by industry leaders.

“We appropriated those $75 million in tourism recovery funds to help our tourism business revive itself after Gov. Beshear’s shutdowns and lockdowns during the COVID pandemic,” Thayer said. “Now, he’s taking full credit as he always does. With money that was appropriated by the General Assembly.”

Beshear’s initial budget plan called for $200 million to upgrade state parks and $10 million in ARPA funds to market Kentucky as a tourism destination.