Northwest Arkansas native Tom Walton of the Walton Family Foundation and RopeSwing was named “Tourism Person of the Year” Tuesday (March 15) during the 42nd Arkansas Governor’s Conference on Tourism in Springdale.
Walton, who accepted his award during the conference’s Henry Award luncheon, talked about his work to bring bike trails to Northwest Arkansas and the state as a whole. Bentonville will host the three-day International Mountain Bicycling Associations Summit in November and the state has a growing number of high-quality trails.
“Arkansas is the Mecca for mountain biking,” Walton said.
Walton also said the foundation is committed to continued support of Arkansas’ tourism industry.
The Tourism Person of the Year is selected by the previous recipients of the award. The Henry Awards have been a feature of the annual Arkansas Governor’s Conference on Tourism since their debut in 1981. The awards are named for Henri de Tonti, founder of Arkansas Post in 1686, and who is often hailed as the first “Arkansas Traveler,” according to a press release.
The winners of the other Henry awards were:
• Media Support Award: Arkansas Life, Little Rock
• Bootstrap Award: Greater Searcy County Chamber of Commerce, Marshall
• Arkansas Heritage Award: Arkansas Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission, Little Rock
• Grand Old Classic Special Event Award: King Biscuit Blues Festival, Helena-West Helena
• Outstanding Volunteer Service Award: Adam Davis, Mammoth Spring
• Community Tourism Development Award: City of Fairfield Bay
• The Natural State Award: Razorback Regional Greenway, Northwest Arkansas
Gov. Asa Hutchinson addressed the crowd of about 500 people from across the Natural State to talk about the value of tourism to the state’s economy. Last year the state revenue from tourism rose by 7.7%. more than 28 million visitors to Arkansas in 2015 spent a combined $7.2 billion, according to the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism annual report released Monday (March 14).
“Tourism is economic development,” he said.
Hutchinson spoke about the various forms of tourism including the rapid growth in mountain biking and cultural attractions such as art exhibits in Northwest Arkansas and Little Rock. Of the estimated 26 million visitors last year, approximately 5% said their visit was to mountain bike.
“We enjoy this every day but it’s addictive for the visitor,” he said of the state’s natural beauty and other amenities. “I love to promote this state.”
Hutchinson also referenced stories he’s heard of people from other states who visited Arkansas and were so happy with what they found that they ended up moving here. He closed by telling the crowd he wants to continue supporting their efforts.
“As governor, I want to help (tourism) grow,” he said.
During a brief interview with Talk Business & Politics after his conference address, Hutchinson said the tourism industry helps support many small businesses.
“First of all it’s important to continue to emphasize that it’s the second largest industry in Arkansas … second only to agriculture so it’s really an economic driver for our state. So many small businesses depend on the tourism and hospitality industry,” Hutchinson said.
He also said the state’s tourism industry is “a quality of life issue,” with state parks, bike trails, museums and other tourism industry assets helping boost the state’s economic development efforts.
“It ties into what we are trying to do in the business and industrial recruitment, the job creation here in this state, because people want to locate companies and new plants to where there is a quality of life, where there is life beyond the workspace and that’s what Arkansas represents.”