Tourism plays an important role in Arkansas’ economy. Total travel expenditures exceeded $8.2 billion last year, according to a preliminary state Department of Parks and Tourism report that estimates nearly 30 million visitor trips created 66,320 jobs.
A subplot is the outsized contribution to Arkansas’ tourism industry by counties with smaller populations. Pulaski County led the state in total travel expenditures, no surprise given its status as Arkansas’ most populous county in U.S. Census Bureau data.
But other counties are making an outsized contribution to tourism. Examples include Garland County, which ranked second in total travel expenditures among Arkansas’ 75 counties, but eighth in population; and Union County, 12th and 19th in those categories.
El Dorado’s cultural renaissance has been widely reported in The New York Times and other media. Garland County has received less attention. Yet both share an important feature drawing tourists.
The El Dorado Film Festival is entering its fifth year. The better-known Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival (HSDFF) – in its 27th year – is “the longest-running All-Documentary Film Festival in North America.”
Local film festivals attract tourists that make travel expenditures and create jobs. They also attract film stars, directors and producers who generate goodwill for Arkansas in private sectors from Hollywood to Broadway. One HSDFF testimonial came from Louis Black, co-founder of Austin’s South by Southwest Conference and Festivals, which “celebrate the convergence of the interactive, film, and music industries.”
“Without exaggeration I was literally reborn at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival,” Black said. “As a co-founder of SXSW and a producer who has had films premiere at Sundance, Toronto International Film Festival and SXSW, this might seem sheer hyperbole. But the truth is I spent the previous two years battling ill health, and, after that experience, I was a bit bitter and encased in a shell.
“The films and people at Hot Springs reminded me why I fell so in love with film in the first place. It was intimate yet professional, passionate but still reasoned. The attendees were great, the special guests exciting and accessible, and the films excellently programmed. It is a remarkable Festival and a great event.”
Some economic impact is quantifiable. Nearly 1,100 attendees used a promotion to book lodgings last year, while others self-booked. An estimated 10,000 people attended last year’s HSDFF at the Arlington Hotel downtown Hot Springs near Bathhouse Row. The hotel’s ballroom seats 400-450 people.
The City of Hot Springs 2016 annual financial report shows sales and use tax revenue increased from $16.8 million-to-$22.1 million since the recession ended in 2009. Oaklawn Park – one of Garland County’s principal employers, according to public records – is a significant tourist attraction generating tax revenues.
HSDFF contributes at least $2.5 million annually to Garland’s economy, though some tourists will need more than racing, gaming or cinema to visit Hot Springs. Bentonville has its own film festival. It also features the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, a testament to Alice Walton’s bold cultural vision.
A cultural innovation such as a center for performing arts would boost Hot Springs’ tourist appeal.
Editor’s note: Greg Kaza is an economist and executive director of the Arkansas Policy Foundation. The opinions expressed are those of the author.