For Arkansas to grow and prosper in the 21st century, a healthy and diverse economy is vital. Emerging industries such as steel production, tech sectors and advanced manufacturing are finding a home in Arkansas working side-by-side with the state’s more traditional economic drivers such as agriculture and timber.
One of the industries in which Arkansas has continued to thrive is travel and tourism.
In 2016, in-state and out-of-state tourists spent approximately $7.6 billion in Arkansas. Those expenditures resulted in almost 66,000 direct jobs for Arkansans in travel and tourism with many more indirectly employed. It also added $393.5 million in state taxes for general revenue. The tourism industry is a reliable source of income for the state of Arkansas.
A turning point for Arkansas’s tourism industry came in 1989 when the Arkansas General Assembly allowed for collection of a 2% tourism tax. Proceeds from the tax are placed into a trust fund and are allocated exclusively for marketing and promotion of Arkansas tourism. Collections have grown almost every year.
The competition for tourism dollars is intense. Whereas Arkansas once competed only with surrounding states for visitors, we are now competing on a national level and, sometimes, internationally. The 2% tax gives the state resources necessary to tell our story and attract visitors without tapping into general revenue funds, and to be a major contributor to Arkansas’s economy.
While the numbers shown above indicate the direct economic impact of the tourism, there is also an indirect impact.
The work we do at the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism along with the efforts of our industry partners plays a major role in our state’s efforts to lure new industry and, thus, new jobs to Arkansas. While cost concerns regarding land, workforce, and infrastructure will always be important to business people, you can’t discount the significance of quality of life. My friend Mike Preston, executive director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, tells me the amenities we have to offer are part of the experience that employers want to provide for employees because it leads to a happy and productive workforce.
Unlike a generation ago when people would move to a city or town because that’s where the jobs were located, members of today’s Millennial generation often decide where to live based on the quality of life. They worry about finding a job later. We recognize this societal change and are looking well beyond the traditional parameters for making Arkansas an even more desirable place to live and work.
As a state, we are truly blessed with the natural resources available to us: the mountains, the lakes and rivers, the diverse scenic beauty, but those things just aren’t enough anymore. So, Arkansas has been diligent in offering attractive urban living options, convenient transportation alternatives, and exciting dining and entertainment venues.
Arkansas’s state parks system made up of 52 parks is second to none and hosts almost 10 million visitors every year. No matter the interests — camping, historical, or recreational — there’s an Arkansas state park that fits the bill.
For the adventurists, mountain biking trails are being developed throughout Northwest Arkansas and around Hot Springs. In fact, the state now has five Epic Trails as designated by the prestigious International Mountain Bicycling Association.
The Spring River in north Arkansas is well-known for rafting. For a relaxing float, the Buffalo National River in north central Arkansas is one of America’s premier destinations. The White and Little Red rivers deliver world-class trout fishing.
Rock climbing is a popular activity in the Ozark and Ouachita Mountains. And, from the burgeoning food scene in Bentonville to downtown Little Rock to the Arkansas Delta, cuisine in our state is unique and unmatched.
Arkansas is known for its ease of doing business, increasingly so under this administration, its strong incentives program, and its eager workforce. However, that list is not complete without the inclusion of our quality of life. We have the travel and tourism industry to thank for that. Together, we look forward to building a better Arkansas.
Editor’s note: Kane Webb is executive director of the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism. The opinions expressed are those of the author.