The State of Tourism in the Natural State

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 89 views 

In order to give an analysis of the state of tourism in Arkansas, it’s almost imperative to look back and see how far we’ve come in the last forty or so years to the point of having visitors spend $5.6 billion in our state each year.

Arkansas has a history of tourism as an economic generator, but we have not had a history of a statewide tourism infrastructure. You can have visitors, but if you don’t have businesses to take their money, you’ll never have a tourism economy.

We’ve had Hot Springs, first set aside by President Andrew Jackson as a reservation to be protected for future generations. It was the first National Park, but since no one in Jackson’s day knew what a park was, its official designation followed some of the other parks such as Yellowstone. Nevertheless, it WAS first.

Then of course, we had the whole hillbilly thing based in the mountains of Arkansas, whether they be the Ozarks for the Ouachitas, from which we’re still recovering. Bob Burns and Lum and Abner were popular in their day, but they didn’t do a great deal for the long term image of the state.

Nevertheless, from the record of old tourist postcards from Hot Springs, Eureka Springs and other resorts in Arkansas, tourists have long recognized the potential Arkansas has offered.

Our State Park system, starting with Petit Jean in 1927, had, as one of its original missions, the support of tourism. Interestingly enough, in these days where we think about parks as a little piece of wilderness, yet in the origins of the state and national parks, a great deal of the conversation was about giving people access to these areas.

Obviously, places like Petit Jean or Devils Den or Buffalo River had been there forever, but the general public had no way to get to them, and if they did, there were no facilities to stay, eat or spend the night. One of the purposes of the original state parks was to provide that visitor infrastructure.

In the early 1970s when I first started paying attention to any of this, Arkansas just had three new National Parks designated in the decade before, Arkansas Post, Fort Smith and Pea Ridge. There were 24 state parks which Gov. Dale Bumpers described as “a statewide embarrassment” due to years of underfunding.

Dogpatch/ Marble Falls complex was a new tourist attraction, and hosted the first Governor’s Conference on Tourism in 1975 with about 175 in attendance. However, convention facilities at Little Rock, Hot Springs, Fort Smith, Pine Bluff and Eureka Springs were minimal or nonexistent. Northwest Arkansas, north of Fayetteville, was largely rural with small cities scattered up U.S. 71.

The Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism was created in 1971 as an umbrella agency of separate divisions, and the fledgling Arkansas Hospitality Association was created that year as well.

If we fast forward to 2012, roughly 40 years later, a lot has changed, and it speaks well for the state of tourism in Arkansas.

The hospitality industry in Arkansas now employs more than 100,000 Arkansans and is one of the largest employers in the state. That fledgling Hospitality Association now has more than 700 member companies statewide. That Governor’s Conference on Tourism is one of the largest in the country, regularly hosting more than 600 attendees.

There are modern convention and meeting facilities in Little Rock, Hot Springs, Eureka Springs, Fort Smith, Fayetteville, Springdale, Pine Bluff, El Dorado, Stuttgart, Brinkley and Rogers and new ones on the way in Jonesboro and Texarkana.

Those State Parks once described as an embarrassment now number 52, including iconic Arkansas places such as the Crater of Diamonds, DeGray, Pinnacle Mountain, Historic Washington and the Ozark Folk Center.

Newer developments include Mt. Magazine, the “new” Lake Fort Smith State Park, the Visitor Center at the Hobbs State Park-Conservation Area, the new Mississippi River State Park, the renovated Mather Lodge at Petit Jean and the championship Ridges at Village Creel golf course.

We have some new National Park Service units as well to include the Buffalo National River, the first in America, the Central High National Historic Site and the William Jefferson Clinton Boyhood Home.

The state’s aging Welcome Centers at our borders have largely been replaced, courtesy of the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department, and two more will open soon, at West Memphis and Helena.

Verizon Arena has gone into North Little Rock, and the river trail system in central Arkansas to include the Big Dam Bridge and the Two Rivers Bridge has become a model to the country. Garvan Woodland Gardens and the Winthrop Rockefeller center have come on line. The Arkansas Delta has gotten into the act featuring it’s history with places such as the restored Lakeport Plantation and the Hemingway-Pfeiffer house, and Johnny Cash’s boyhood home project at Dyess.

And then we have the Clinton Presidential Center and Library, one of the most visited in the country, and the new Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, arguably one of the finest museums in the country. These two attractions have put Arkansas on “maps” far outside our ordinary market area for visitors. When the U.S. Marshal’s Museum opens in Fort Smith, I expect it to do the same.

As you might guess, this list could go on for a while. New resorts, spas, wineries, hotels, cabins, and zip-lines are coming on line regularly. But we must remember it hasn’t always been this way. It seems like we have had some stretches of more than 10 years at a time without a single significant investment in tourism infrastructure in Arkansas … private or public. So, what changed?

Two initiatives, when you consider the state of tourism in Arkansas, must be acknowledged.

The first is the 2% tourism tax on lodging, camping, attractions and marina rentals supported by the hospitality industry and passed by the legislature in 1989. The taxes paid by our visitors in effect create the fund Arkansas has to market itself back to those folks. And it allows us to compete with our neighboring states like Texas. As a wise person once told me, “they aren’t making any more tourists, you have to steal them from someone else.”

The other is the 1/8th Cent Conservation Amendment, placed on the ballot by the legislature and passed by the Arkansas voters in 1996 to benefit the state agencies in the “forever” business.

Arkansans are justifiably proud of their heritage, whether it be natural, historic or cultural. When dealing with Arkansas’s treasures, if you don’t take care of them the cost is not avoided, it is simply put off to grow and accumulate. It had happened in Arkansas, and we had dug a hole so deep by 1996 there was no getting out of it without a special fund to address the issue. State Parks, Heritage, Game and Fish, and Keep Arkansas Beautiful promised to spend the money to take care of Arkansas’s special places, and in my view, all have. And if you believe in visitor comments, our citizens and visitors think so as well.

The trend in Arkansas tourism is definitely up. Sure, we’ve had our dips with floods, droughts, heat waves, recessions and terrorist attacks that affect the economy as a whole. Fortunately, though, Arkansas has managed to come out of them stronger than ever.

I see two issues we really need to look out for though. The first is complacency. We can’t EVER take our tourism economy for granted. If we do, someone will take it away from us. Some folks still believe tourists will come no matter what. I don’t buy that, and the experience in states where they quit promoting bears that out. Tourism is hard to get your hands around because it’s not all in one place with a big parking lot and a bunch of smoke stacks. It is real, it creates jobs, and contributes to a quality of life that brings other business to the state.

The other issue is the plight of the federal estate in Arkansas. With three national forests, seven units of the National Park System, the myriad of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lakes (and 70% of the state’s campsites), the federal recreational facilities in Arkansas, most built in the 1960’s and 1970’s, are deteriorating due to heavy use and insufficient funding. We must find a solution to that.

The good news, though, is that Arkansas’s public and private tourism and recreation providers have a pretty good record of working together. In a small state, it’s not hard to know many of the others in the same business of serving travelers and vacationers, both urban and rural. And with limited dollars, cooperative marketing ventures and projects generally turn out to be a good deal for all concerned.

If we stay in the game, The Natural State has a bright tourism future.