State of the State Mid-2022: Tourism sector continues post-pandemic rebound

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 1,434 views 

Not only has Arkansas tourism bounced back from a pandemic that greatly impacted tourism dollars spent in the state, fiscal year 2022 was the best year ever for tourism in the state, said Stacy Hurst, secretary of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism.

“Arkansas tourism survived the COVID-19 pandemic very well,” Hurst said. “Where we are now, post the intensity of the onset of the pandemic when we have learned to live with the virus, has exceeded our expectations.”

The 2020 Arkansas Tourism Economic Impact Report showed a 35.6% decline in leisure travelers to the state and a more than 25% decline in overall tourism economic impact compared with 2019. The declines were attributed to COVID-19 closures and disruptions. But the state’s tourism impact has rebounded nicely, Hurst said.

Arkansas’ 2% tourism tax revenue in the January-April period was $6.834 million, up 32.3% compared with the $5.166 million in the same period of 2021 and up 37.7% over the same period in pre-pandemic 2019. The 2021 collections of the tax ($20.544 million) set an annual record for the tax, and each of the first four months of 2022 set new monthly records.

January-April hospitality tax collections among 17 cities surveyed for the Arkansas Tourism Ticker were up 20.6% compared with the same period in 2021, and up 43.1% compared with the same period in 2020.

“In Arkansas, we observed, as did all the other states, that people wanted the opportunity to still travel but they wanted to have experiences in safer places, which translated into less urban, more access to nature. Arkansas is perfectly positioned for that,” Hurst said.

An incredibly hot July, however, has had a slight negative impact on tourism. Hurst said they have seen a drop in visitors to state parks because of the extreme heat, with many campsites being less full than usual during the summer months.

“Not many want to be outside camping when it’s over 100 (degrees),” she said.

Still, even with the high temperatures keeping some campers away, the state is predicting state tourism revenues to be at least 10% higher this fiscal year, Hurst said, noting Arkansas tourism is weathering recent trends in inflation well.

“That is what we’ve been marketing: The value of travel in Arkansas. You can get an experience for less money, especially with our state parks. Also, Arkansas’s location makes it an easy drive for a good section of the country. And driving is much less expensive than having to fly,” Hurst said.

While FY’22 might have been the state’s best year ever, the state tourism staff is not “resting on its laurels,” Hurst said. They are conducting studies and research that is innovative and looking at robust ways to use that data, she said. The department is working on a strategic plan it intends to have ready for July 2023 and is studying a new brand and image, she said.

“We want to make certain we are striking the right tone and image with travelers. We are conducting a number of studies to be in the best position to attract travelers going forward,” Hurst said.

The department is also working with private partners, such as the Walton Foundation and the Runway Group, as well as individual advertising and promotion commission and convention and business bureaus to keep Arkansas tourism a strong economic contributor to the state, she said.

“It has never been a better time to be the Natural State. We are very excited,” Hurst said.

Tourism jobs in Arkansas continue to rebound from the pandemic, but have yet to reach peak employment of 124,400 reached in February 2020. Jobs in the sector hit a 2022 high of 121,700, before settling down to 120,000 in June, which was still ahead of the 115,000 in June 2021. The June report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics is the most recent jobs report.

Editor’s note: Link here to connect to the State of the State section.