Arkansas tourism officials discuss potential impact of coronavirus

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 976 views 

Hundreds of Arkansas tourism officials and industry representatives attended Monday’s (March 2) noon luncheon at the 46th annual Arkansas Governor’s Conference on Tourism held in the Fort Smith Convention Center. (photo courtesy of Arkansas Tourism)

Oaklawn, Choctaw and Expedia Group were just a few of the many vendors at the 46th annual Arkansas Governor’s Conference on Tourism handing out small bottles of hand sanitizers. It was a clear sign coronavirus concerns were on the minds of many at the two-day event held at the Fort Smith Convention Center.

“Just about every vendor has them [small bottle of hand sanitizer] this year,” said conference attendee Glynna Allen of Harrison.

Novel coronavirus, first detected in the Wuhan province in China, has spread to around 70 countries, including the United States. The respiratory illness does not now have a vaccine or proven treatments. As of Monday (March 2), the global death toll surpassed 3,000, with most of those – more than 2,900 – in China. Six deaths were confirmed as of Monday in the U.S.

On Jan. 31, 2020, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex M. Azar II declared a public health emergency (PHE) for the United States to aid the nation’s healthcare community in responding to COVID-19, aka the coronavirus.

“At this time, however, most people in the United States will have little immediate risk of exposure to this virus,” the U.S. Centers for Disease Control noted in its daily situation summary. “This virus is NOT currently spreading widely in the United States. However, it is important to note that current global circumstances suggest it is likely that this virus will cause a pandemic. This is a rapidly evolving situation and the risk assessment will be updated as needed.”

Also as of Monday, more than 30 large business conventions – included the popular Facebook developers conference – were either canceled or postponed because of coronavirus fears.

Several informal discussions between breaks at the tourism conference were about if or how much the virus might hurt the state’s tourism industry.

Tourism continues to be one of the state’s top industries with the latest available report showing more than 32 million visitors came to Arkansas in 2018, adding around $7.6 billion to the state’s economy. The 2018 tourism economic report, released in September 2019, shows tourism brought in $7.37 billion in total travel expenditures, $408 million in state taxes (up 2.7%) and $161 million in local taxes (up 2.9%), according to data released by the Division of Arkansas Tourism.

Arkansas’ 2% tourism tax revenue in 2019 was up 7.2% compared with the same period in 2018. June and July were the first two months the collection was above $1.8 million, and each month in 2019 set a new record for collections in that month, according to the Arkansas Tourism Ticker. The tax generated $17.608 million for the year, above the $16.428 million in 2018, and up an impressive 53.2% from a decade ago in 2010.

Travis Napper, incoming director of Arkansas Tourism, told Talk Business & Politics that present information suggests coronavirus will not be the problem it has been in other countries.

“While I think there is the potential for it to be a very nasty, ugly situation, for the most part, it seems like most people think America will be able to handle what’s to come pretty well,” Napper said, adding that a majority of travel to and from Arkansas is domestic.

Darin Gray, chairman and CEO of Little Rock-based CJRW, and a veteran in the marketing of the state’s tourism industry, said no one is naive about the deadly nature of the virus, but he is cautiously optimistic about Arkansas being spared significant negative impacts.

“Less than 3% of the state’s marketing budget is dedicated to international recruitment efforts. It’s an important market to pursue but percentage-wise represents a low number when compared to where most of Arkansas’ visitors travel from,” Gray noted.

He also said international travel recruitment “is intended to be a long-game. Sudden changes in efforts or messaging do not do a lot to change the outcome,” adding that “there’s a typical one- to two-year lag-time between creating interest for an international traveler to visit Arkansas and when they actually make the trip.”

Gray, who heads the agency responsible for marketing the state’s tourism industry, said most of Arkansas’ visitors are from nearby states, which could help insulate the industry from virus impacts.