Arkansas tourism revenue should continue a steady climb in 2017, but the challenge lies in continuing to add “new rides” each year to keep up momentum, the state tourism director said.
Joe David Rice, the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism’s director of tourism, applied his management philosophy to a smaller operation: “Let’s say Arkansas is a 58,000-square-mile theme park. There’s three rules for a good theme park operator. One is that you promote like crazy. The second rule is that you keep it immaculately clean, and the third is that you add a new ride every year.”
That’s something Arkansas struggled with 15 or 20 years ago, said Rice, director since 1987. However, the state has added a string of major attractions in recent years and, consequently, had several consecutive years of growth in the tourism sector.
“Everywhere we look there’s some new thing going in,” Rice said, citing the addition of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Bachman Wilson house to the grounds at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and the opening of the Amazeum family museum, both in Bentonville, as recent examples in 2015.
He also pointed to a trend that has resulted in more than 20 microbreweries opening throughout the state and to a burgeoning cycling industry tied to a growing system of trails. Several new trails were added this year, and October brought the opening of Big River Crossing, an $18 million pedestrian bridge that begins in West Memphis and crosses the Mississippi River. Also, Bentonville hosted the International Mountain Biking Association’s World Summit in November.
Rice believes the effects of a new focus on the promotion of cycling will carry over into 2017.
“We’re trying to position ourselves as the cycling hub of the South,” he said.
The department will also continue to pursue the motorcycling market. Rice said the state has grown in popularity for motorcyclists in the last five years or more. Motorcyclists enjoy riding Highway 7 in South Arkansas and the Pig Trail in Northwest Arkansas, and they appreciate that it is legal to ride without helmets, Rice said.
In Northeast Arkansas, Rice said he sees renewed interest in Johnny Cash’s renovated boyhood home in Dyess, and a new focus on reviving the downtowns in Batesville and Newport also bodes well for tourism. In Wilson, there are plans to continue to improve downtown attractions in 2017, including the construction of a new facility at the Hampson Archaeological Museum State Park. Wilson is about 10 miles from the Johnny Cash home, and Rice believes it will be a “great one-two combination” for tourists.
While its proposed 2019 opening is a couple of years down the road, Rice also cited the U.S. Marshals Museum in Fort Smith as a tourism draw and potential source for added momentum in the industry.
In addition to the new offerings throughout the state, Rice credits the tourism department’s marketing approach. Key market areas for Arkansas tourism include Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Dallas and Houston, and those economies are faring well, Rice said.
“We have a pretty good, research-based, aggressive campaign and are hitting the right markets in the right communities at the right time, with the right messages,” he said.
The department is also planning to dip its toe into international tourism, he said. For years, the state stayed away from that market because it didn’t have destinations that appealed to international travelers.
“Up until the last decade, we didn’t have a lot to hang our hat on,” Rice said. But that’s changed and the industry is still on the upswing and expected to keep coming strong in 2017.