Fort Smith, Van Buren hospitality tax revenue returning to record pace in 2021

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 868 views 

The bus trolley in downtown Van Buren.

Fort Smith and Van Buren are on track to set records for hospitality tax revenue in 2021, just a year after – or less than a year based on vaccine availability – COVID-19 collapsed the state’s tourism industry.

Arkansas’ tourism industry took a beating in 2020, with combined hospitality tax revenue in the 17 cities reviewed for the Arkansas Tourism Ticker down 18% compared with 2019 and revenue from the state’s 2% tourism tax down 22.7%.

Fort Smith hospitality tax revenue – 3% hotel lodging tax – in 2020 was $643,175, well below the record of $920,247 in 2019. Van Buren hospitality tax revenue – 1% on hotel lodging and 1% on prepared food – was $618,011, below the record $659,539 in 2019. The Van Buren decline in 2020 was less than that of Fort Smith because of the diversified revenue stream.

Van Buren hospitality tax revenue during the first nine months of 2021 is $555,046, much better than the $462,068 during the same period in 2020, and up 11.6% compared with the $497,200 in the same period of 2019.

“Our hospitality businesses have done well this year in spite a slow recovery from the impact of COVID. We were fortunate that we didn’t lose any of our tourism related businesses due to the closures and restrictions caused by the pandemic,” said Maryl Purvis, director of the Van Buren Advertising & Promotion Commission.

Purvis also said the city is benefiting from the return of tour groups and expects better holiday numbers with more travelers driving than flying.

“We are seeing a return to more normal tourist activity this fall as we have enjoyed the return of visitors from our surrounding states and even many group tours eager to get out and about. We also anticipate a good holiday travel season because more people will be driving to their Thanksgiving and Christmas destinations rather than flying,” she said.

Tim Jacobsen, executive director of the Fort Smith Convention and Visitors Bureau, said 2021 revenue through September is $723,518, well above the $485,043 during the same period of 2020 and even ahead of the $695,562 during the same period of 2019. He said if the pace continues the revenue will hit around $950,000 by year end, which will best the 2019 record.

“We are looking forward to a strong 2022 as convention business continues to return to pre pandemic levels. 75% of the travel to Fort Smith is leisure travel and 25% is group tour and convention business. Our wealth of outdoor amenities faired well for the destination through the pandemic compared to other areas that rely more on group tour and convention travel,” Jacobsen noted in a statement to Talk Business & Politics.

Fort Smith metro tourism employment has not returned, however. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show an estimated 9,200 employed in the sector in the region during October, above the 8,500 in October 2019, but below the 9,600 in October 2019.