State of the State 2023: Tourism officials tout busy 2023, push outdoor recreation

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 467 views 

Arkansas’ new secretary of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism, Mike Mills, believes now is an exciting time for the department. The almost 50-year veteran of the state’s tourism sector says the industry has recovered from the pandemic.

“As Arkansas State Parks celebrates its centennial year, the Arkansas tourism industry continues to thrive, having increased revenue consistently for the past 20 months,” said Mills, who was appointed to the cabinet position on Jan. 12.

Data released by the department in September shows Arkansas’ tourism industry had a record-breaking visitation in 2021 and has recovered after a significant decline in 2020 due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. The state saw over 41 million visitors in 2021 compared to 29.2 million in 2020 and 36.3 million in 2019. Lodging spending increased 49% after a fall of 29% in 2020. That rebound led to lodging spending exceeding its 2019 level by 5%. The data was released during the Arkansas Hospitality Association’s annual convention in Little Rock.

Former Secretary of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism Stacy Hurst said Arkansas being known as the Natural State played a big role in tourism success in the state.

“These numbers illustrate that Arkansas is in the midst of a public perception turning point when it comes to our national profile as a tourist destination. Together we can keep that momentum strong as we head into 2023 and beyond,” Hurst said when the numbers were released.

The report noted that visitor spending, visitor-supported jobs and business sales generated $1.1 billion in tax collections that support local, state and federal government operations. State and local taxes alone topped $653 million in 2021. National park visitation in Arkansas rose 23% above its 2019 pre-pandemic level to just under four million visits, while hunting and fishing licenses issued to nonresidents more than doubled from 2019.

The report also said tourism-supported jobs accounted for 5.6% of all jobs in Arkansas in 2021. Nearly one-in-four (23%) Arkansas tourism jobs were lost in 2020. With the travel recovery in 2021, tourism jobs grew by 95% of their pre-pandemic level.

Mike Mills, secretary of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism

“Now is the time to unleash The Natural State’s potential to be a true leader in the industry of tourism and outdoor recreation, sharing our rich heritage, natural beauty, and welcoming people from across the world,” Mills said.

On Jan. 24, Gov. Sarah Sanders signed an executive order establishing the Natural State Initiative and the Natural State Initiative Advisory Council and said her husband, Bryan, will lead the effort in a volunteer capacity. The order says the council will advise the governor about promoting outdoor recreation and the outdoor economy.

The tourism department is promoting new tourism draws in 2023. The Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts, formerly known as the Arkansas Arts Center, is slated for a much anticipated reopening on April 22. Work on the museum, including a redesign and expansion, began in 2016 and completely transformed the museum building and grounds.

The state-of-the-art building, which is located at 501 E. Ninth St. in Little Rock, includes gallery space to house installations from the museum’s 14,000-work collection as well as temporary exhibits. Also at the museum are the Windgate Art School, an on-site theater and lecture hall, outdoor gathering spaces, a restaurant with outdoor dining and more. Additionally, more than 11 acres of newly landscaped grounds surround the museum at historic MacArthur Park, including new walking trails.

Arkansas’ first sake brewery, Origami Sake in Hot Springs, is set to open early this year. The sake will be made in Hot Springs using the city’s thermal waters, and Arkansas rice from Isbell Farms in England, will also be an ingredient in the sake, which is made from fermented rice.

“Outside of Japan, there is arguably no better place on earth than our home state to harvest the essentials of great sake: rice and water. The distinctive lineage of our brew can be traced directly to Arkansas’s local geography, which yields our premium ingredients. Arkansas grows rice coveted around the world and produces sparkling spring water emerging from thousands of feet below ground that is naturally filtered for great taste,” the brewery’s website said.

The Betty Hinshaw Bird Sanctuary opened to the public in the fall of 2022. Hinshaw donated 25 acres along Wildcat Creek near Tontitown to the Northwest Arkansas Land Trust (NWALT) to create the sanctuary. NWALT restored the 25-acre tract to its native grassland with local species of tallgrasses and prairie wildflowers, information from the tourism department said. A dedicated pollinator habitat provides forage for birds, while native shrub thickets offer nesting areas and cover.

Along with birds, the sanctuary conserves and supports hundreds of plant and animal species that depend on this kind of habitat. A small parking area and a mile-long public trail allow for quiet pedestrian access and birding opportunities for the community.  According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 70 bird species have been documented within a one-mile radius of the Betty Hinshaw Bird Sanctuary.

Southland Casino Racing in West Memphis now features a 20-story, 300-room hotel at the facility and a new 113,000-square-foot casino complex featuring new and expanding dining options. The expansion project will eventually include a new, covered parking garage with 1,250 spaces.

Paragould’s first trail system, the 8 Mile Creek Trail, opened in the summer of 2022. It features urban biking, hiking, and walking trails. The trail provides a safer route those biking, hiking and walking and will eventually connect most of the city’s parks, downtown, and several public school sites.

The U.S. Marshals Museum will open in the summer of 2023. Museum officials have not yet set an opening date. Construction of the approximately 53,000-square-foot U.S. Marshals Museum was completed — except for exhibits — in early 2020. The facility is on the Arkansas River near downtown Fort Smith. In January 2007, the U.S. Marshals Service selected Fort Smith as the site for the national museum.

Editor’s note: The State of the State series provides reports twice a year on Arkansas’ key economic sectors. The series publishes stories to begin a year and stories in July/August to provide a broad mid-year update on the state’s economy. Link here for the State of the State page and previous stories.