Arkansas tourism gained momentum throughout 2018 and State Tourism Director Jim Dailey says he doesn’t see that changing in 2019.
“We are definitely in the most exciting times for growth and interest in coming to Arkansas,” he said. “There are so many things on the drawing board or already under construction that makes tourism into the state a steady upward path.”
Among some of the exciting turns tourism in Arkansas is pursuing is international tourism, Dailey said, noting that he is working with Europe, China and most recently Australia to bring international tourist groups to the state.
“It’s a concerted effort,” Dailey said. “And it’s working. We had a group of tour guide representatives who told us they had no idea what all Arkansas has to offer. We’re getting the word out.”
In 2018, tourism tax collections were up about 2.5% from 2017 as the overall tourism industry gins about $7 billion into the Arkansas economy, Dailey said. “It is one of the top industries in the state… (2018) is the second year in a row we had over 1 million people visit our visitor centers,” he said.
A lot of what is making Arkansas appealing to tourists is an emphasis on art and culture. Dailey highlighted the Murphy Arts District in El Dorado, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and an expanding art venue in Northwest Arkansas, the soon-to-be U.S. Marshals Museum and arts and entertainment events like the Unexpected Project in Fort Smith, the multi-million dollar renovation of the Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock, and renovations and expansion at Oaklawn in Hot Springs.
“These are just the big ones I can name off the top of my head. There are hundreds of smaller communities doing things to make more art,” Dailey said. “It’s an upbeat and optimistic time in Arkansas.”
El Dorado Festivals & Events has worked for the past four years to create the Murphy Arts District, an area in downtown El Dorado focused on arts and entertainment. It’s drawn a number of rising and big-time entertainers to the stage with grander plans for 2019.
The Momentary is a contemporary arts venue in development in Bentonville that is a satellite project to Crystal Bridges. In December, the venue announced a $1 million gift from Australian-based audio company Rode Microphones that will provide audio equipment to assist musicians, sound artists and media teams with live concerts, audio installations, event streaming and podcasts. The Momentary will open to the public in early 2020 with a preview concert in the fall of 2019.
Not to be left out of the focus on art, the U.S. Marshals Museum in Fort Smith is asking Fort Smith residents to approve a short-term tax to raise up to $16 million to complete funding for the project, which began construction in July. Organizers hope the museum will open in September.
“So much in Fort Smith hinges on the completion of the Marshals Museum. That is going to change tourism, not only in Fort Smith, but in the three-state region,” said Claude Legris, executive director of Fort Smith Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The Unexpected Project, which brings urban and contemporary artists to Fort Smith, also continues to grow in stature. And the Fort Smith Regional Art Museum recently announced a $12 million endowment from the Windgate Foundation to allow the center to continue to provide art programs and exhibits to all those visiting Fort Smith.
In Little Rock, Arkansas Arts Center leaders are looking to spend around $98.9 million, $60 million of which will be private money, on an overhaul of the downtown museum. Construction is set to begin in the fall.
And in Northeast Arkansas, arts and music continue to blend with attractions ranging from the Johnny Cash boyhood home in Dyess and festivals and events up and down the 67-167 rock-n-roll highway.
Another boost to Arkansas tourism will come from a 2018 voter-approved constitutional amendment to expand casino gambling in Arkansas.
Oaklawn Racing and Gaming announced in November plans to build a high-rise hotel, multi-purpose event center and larger gaming area to boost the casino and American thoroughbred racetrack. The project, which will be completed in early 2020, will cost more than $100 million. The project is one of the largest hospitality investments in the history of Arkansas.
Publicly-traded Delaware North also revealed plans in November to build a hotel and expanded gaming center in West Memphis tied to the company’s Southland Gaming and Racing location in Crittenden County. In addition, Quapaw Tribe Chairman John Berry said he hopes to get permits in Jefferson County to bring a multi-million dollar gaming and hotel facility in Pine Bluff by 2020.
The push to bring cycling enthusiasts to the Natural State will continue in 2019 as well.
“A few years ago, the key word was motorcycles. We were all working to bring motorcycle tourism to Arkansas,” Legris said. “Now it’s cycling tourism. The new Riverfront Bike and Skate Park and the planned trails at the river along with all the bike trails out at Ben Geren help Fort Smith with that.”
In 2017, Northwest Arkansas put a lot of money into bike trails as well, Dailey said. Hot Springs and many of the state parks have also added trails to give cycling enthusiasts a place to hone their craft, Dailey said.
There are a number of connector trails and plans to expand cycling throughout areas of the Delta as well.
“Cycling has definitely generated a whole tourism craft in itself with business needed to shuttle to and from the trails, to rent bikes, all sorts of things,” Dailey said.
Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Talk Business & Politics State of the State 2019 magazine, which you can access here.