Arkansas tourism is clicking at a slightly slower pace in the first half of 2010, but state officials are confident that their product and message is not the problem.
"We don’t think the problem is our advertising message or its placement. Nor is it our product," says Joe David Rice, Arkansas’ Tourism Director. "In a word, it’s the economy. Not only is the country suffering from high and chronic unemployment, the American psyche is damaged. Folks are cautious and therefore reluctant to spend money. The travel industry has been hit hard by this situation."
Tourism tax collections, which help gauge the strength of visitors to the Natural State, are down 2.9 percent year-to-date compared to one year ago.
Through May 2010, tourism taxes stood at $4.41 million. One year ago, those tax collections were $4.53 million.
"While we’re not happy with these figures, we realize they could be far worse. In fact, most of my colleagues across the country are scrambling to save positions, maintain campaigns, and keep their welcome centers open," Rice tells Talk Business.
Indeed a search of other state’s tourism statistics provided by Arkansas Parks and Tourism shows that only two states have even ramped up their tourism offices – Alabama and Montana. In total, those two states have added a mere two full-time workers and one part-time employee.
Arkansas has not cut its tourism staff at all from 25 full-time employees, while 17 states have reduced their staffing levels due to tourism budget declines.
In Illinois, the cutbacks have gone so far that the state’s 15 tourist information centers have all been closed and the employees laid off. Officials say the layoffs are temporary, but have set no timetable for rehiring.
Rice says that while the tax collection numbers aren’t in yet, Arkansas has seen "encouraging signs" in the summer months, particularly July. Arkansas’ sister states are a mixed bag, he added.
Texas and Missouri are holding their own, but surprisingly, Rice said that Tennessee has seen a fall-off in tourists that may be a result of big flood that heavily damaged Opryland and other places in and around Nashville.
Mississippi and Louisiana have taken a beating due to the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
Rice is cautious about the coming fall and says the weather during the next few weeks may dictate how good – or bad – fall tourism may be.
"I think we’re going to have a good – but not great – fall season. All this heat and the lack of rainfall make us worry about the foliage," Rice said.
"While the economy is showing some signs of improvement, what gains there are may not be enough to positively influence the fall season which is really just weeks away," he added.