Amidst the backdrop of a “Southern hospitality” welcome rally at the Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport in Little Rock, state Tourism Director Jim Dailey said efforts to improve the online user experience for travelers is leading to an uptick in Arkansas’ visitor count and spending.
“We are progressively getting better at using digital media and connecting with all those algorithms that Google and others use to identify, get feedback and assure ourselves that we’re getting a return on our investment,” said the former Little Rock mayor.
Arkansas has seen a steady, strong growth in its tourism product over the last decade as more travelers visit the Natural State, all while spending more and more money at the numerous attractions and accommodations across the state. 2017 and 2018 were back-to-back record years in many statistical categories measuring tourism and travel.
“For Arkansas, I think we are becoming more and more discovered. We’re seeing not just U.S. citizens, but foreign travelers that are looking to go to the places that are a little bit off the radar screen in the past, that have authentic adventure experience,” Dailey said. “Hit on Arkansas.com and you’ll be amazed at what’s out there.”
Dailey was joined by Little Rock tourism, travel and convention officials at the airport on Tuesday (May 7) to cheer passengers deplaning into the baggage claim area. Mabelvale Elementary’s drumline played music, Loblolly Ice Cream gave out free treats, and airport service dogs offered comfort to the crowd walking through the terminal. The rally was an effort to bring awareness to this week’s National Travel & Tourism Week.
Arkansas saw 29.4 million annual visitors in 2017. They spent more than $7.8 billion and contributed more than $553 million in state and local taxes. The tourism industry, Arkansas’ second largest behind agriculture, accounted for 66,195 travel industry jobs.
“Visitors prime the pump for Crystal Bridges, the Presidential Library, Johnny Cash Home, and the Murphy Arts District and on and on and on,” Dailey said.
In Pulaski County, annual visitors topped 6.4 million a year ago with nearly $2 billion being spent in travel expenditures. In the capital city area, there are nearly 14,000 jobs related to travel.
“Today, we’re celebrating in a traditional Southern welcome to Little Rock with a band and free ice cream, a petting zoo and all of our hospitality partners welcoming all the guests coming in at the Little Rock National Airport,” said Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau CEO Gretchen Hall, who said early 2019 lodging numbers in the city are already above last year’s.
“For us, Little Rock is conveniently located,” she said. “There’s a lot to do here for families, single groups, outdoor adventure and so there’s a good diverse mix of our attractions.”
Dailey said that in the first part of 2019, statewide tourism and travel numbers are already higher than a year ago, too. With the additions of casinos in Hot Springs (Oaklawn), West Memphis (Southland), and eventually Pine Bluff, he expects another record setting year and future years for the industry. In part, that success may be in keeping Arkansas residents in state spending tourism dollars.
“What we’re seeing at Southland and Oaklawn is going to be a notch above what we have seen or experienced in some of the bordering states. I think it’s going to be the best experience they can have and it’s going to be right here in Arkansas,” Dailey said. “I guarantee you these folks [casino operators] don’t spend hundreds of millions of dollars if they don’t expect it’s going to increase their numbers. And their numbers impact ours.”
In 2018, the two casinos at Oaklawn and Southland drew in more than $5.2 billion in wagering. Both Oaklawn and Southland are also seeing a spike in casino wagers this year. Oaklawn’s numbers are up 11.3% in the first three months of 2019, while Southland’s EGS wagers have risen by 3.7%.