The regional tourism industry, focused primarily in Crawford and Sebastian counties, was off to a good start in 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic hit restaurants, hotels and put a hold on most tourist activity.
Tourism officials hope sector harm will slow in May but say a return to anything looking like normal is uncertain.
According to the recent Arkansas Tourism Ticker, hospitality tax revenue (a tax only on hotels) in Fort Smith was $135,111 in the first two months of 2020, up 4.8% compared with the same period in 2019. The revenue in Van Buren (tax on hotels and restaurants) was $93,013 during the first two months, up 5.2% compared with the same period in 2019.
The gains continue the trend in 2019 in which annual collections were up 9.5% in Fort Smith and up 3.5% in Van Buren.
Leisure and hospitality jobs in the Fort Smith metro posted a two-month average of 9,150, unchanged from the same period in 2019. The sector posted record employment of 10,100 in June 2016.
Collections of Arkansas’ 2% tourism tax in the first two months was $22,144 in Crawford County, down 6.6%. The tax generated $92,991 in Sebastian County, up 4.9% compared with the same period in 2019.
Maryl Purvis, director of the Van Buren Advertising & Promotion Commission, said the year did get off to a good start, and she is optimistic some of that pace of growth will help the local tourism industry survive.
“In the early part of 2020 the economy was rocking and rolling, the winter weather was mild and people were getting out and spending. It’s still a little too early to predict how May will do, but I’m encouraged by the uptick in traffic I’m seeing to our restaurants that have re-opened for dine-in under the new guidelines,” Purvis said. “Many of those restaurants are still promoting the carryout and curbside also to encourage additional business. I do think as we move forward businesses will see more activity. People are ready to return to some version of normal even though it won’t be like it was in January and February, not for the near future any way.”
Claude Legris, director of the Fort Smith Convention & Visitors Bureau, said an anecdotal survey of hotel operators in the area indicates the decline has “bottomed out” in the area. However, the industry is not likely to see a full recovery in 2020, with event cancellations out as far as November.
“As you know, the entire industry began a steady decline, including the closure of the Convention Center from mid March through at least the month of May. … In response the CVB has made major budget cuts – 30% across the board – in anticipation of reduced lodging collections and are focusing more on messaging throughout the state and touch states for summer vacation travel to Fort Smith,” Legris said.
Results for the Arkansas Jan.-Feb. 2020 Tourism Ticker report are:
• 3.8% increase
Hospitality tax revenue in Jan.-Feb. 2020 among 17 Arkansas cities reviewed for the Arkansas Tourism Ticker compared with the same period in 2019
• 13.2% increase
Collections of Arkansas’ 2% statewide tourism tax in Jan.-Feb. 2020 compared with the same period in 2019
• 0.04% decrease
Decrease in monthly average of Arkansas’ tourism industry jobs in Jan.-Feb. 2020 compared with the same period in 2019