The industry that helps keep the lights on is fading. Between 1950 and 2011, coal provided between 42% and 57% of the electricity used in the United States. Recent advances in mining productivity and falling natural gas prices have since decimated the coal industry. Today, coal provides only 22% of US electricity, while 38% comes from natural gas.
Over the past decade, the US economy has lost 53,100 coal jobs with an average annual salary of $72,330. Appalachia is one of the regions most affected by the energy transition. In Owsley County, Kentucky, 39.9% of residents rely on SNAP payments for food. At the same time, Appalachia is rich in culture, natural beauty, and people who deserve a new way forward.
One cannot know the fate of economic insecurity without falling asleep thinking about solutions. Consider this: Could educational tourism keep the lights on in Appalachia?
Tourism has saved many declining mining towns elsewhere. In Colorado, the thriving communities of Durango, Leadville, Breckenridge, Telluride and Silverton are among many communities once tied to mining but now buoyed by tourism. The ski slopes and antelopes of some of these towns are not essential ingredients for tourism. Visitors also flock to classes in everything from wine blending to circus skills. Talented, ambitious and inspired people can implement educational tourism to bring commerce almost anywhere.
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Ashland, Oregon has the rolling hills of Appalachia and lacks pro sports, casinos and large convention centers. What they have are bike mechanics courses that attract visitors from across the country. They also put on a series of Shakespeare-related performances and talks from April to December that attract 400,000 guests a year.
Otherwise, how can a small isolated town attract visitors? The Gateway Canyons Resort and Spa, near the Utah-Colorado border, offers stargazing, archery and rock climbing lessons. For those who want to learn more about cars, the Gateway Automotive Museum has enough classic cars to comfortably accommodate the entire population of the city.
Closer to home, visitors from near and far travel to Shaker Village, an ancient community of Shakers near Harrodsburg, Kentucky, for classes in candle-making, weaving, woodcarving, branding butterflies, pottery and history. I once stumbled upon a Middle-earth convention while visiting to take family photos. I now have photos with hobbits in the background.
The Appalachian Regional Commission is among groups that research and promote entrepreneurial initiatives to uplift Appalachian economies. Considerable effort has been made and learning opportunities exist in Eastern Kentucky, but educational tourism offers a direction for future growth. Think of lovers of cooking, dancing, mending, hat making, music, art, quilting, bird watching, distilling, massage, poetry, yoga and so many more skills who would like to learn more during a delightful retreat in the mountains.
Visitors to a community bring money. An extended stay involves spending not only at tourist attractions, but also at gas stations, shops, restaurants, and hotels. The average visitor to Kentucky spends $63 for a day trip and $165 for an overnight stay. A visit from Friday to Sunday for a baking class would thus generate $393 in direct expenses per person. A one-week class would bring in $1,155 in direct expenses per person, or $34,650 for a class of 30 students.
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Spending creates more spending, as recipients of tourism dollars use that money to purchase goods and services for themselves. If half of every dollar spent in a community is re-spent in the community, and half of the money re-spent is re-spent, and so on, the total spend generated by each class in a week would be $69,300.
Tourism has its problems. Too many tourists can change a culture and trample a forest. Fortunately, there are ways to manage crowds and preserve wildlife. Educational tourism does not translate into the crowds we see on beaches and big cities. And tourism creates less pollution than many other industries, including the coal industry.
The history of Appalachia has taken some unfortunate turns. Coal may be in its final chapter, but Eastern Kentucky’s story is far from over. As a follow-up to coal, clean, safe and well-paying jobs in educational tourism could help residents find the bounce back they deserve. Of course, easy solutions are a fairy tale. Success requires careful planning, temporary support, trial and error, and a passion for Kentucky’s cultural heritage. All this is more tenable than a sad end for Appalachia.
Dr. David A. Anderson is the Blazer Professor of Economics and Business at Center College. Her research focuses on gender bias and environmental economics, crime and public policy.