State of the State Mid-Year 2023: Arkansas’ tourism industry booming

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 707 views 

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.

Many spots in Arkansas continue to see record visitation in 2023 making tourism a strong part of the state’s economy, according to the Arkansas Department Parks, Heritage and Tourism (ADPHT).

Interim ADPHT Secretary Shea Lewis said May 2023 tourism collections were up 5.6% over May 2022, making it the highest collections for the month of May so far and the 27th consecutive month that Arkansas tourism has set a new monthly collection record.

“We are also up 9.8% year to date over 2022,” Lewis said.

Also, The Arkansas Tourism Ticker shows that healthy gains to begin 2023 for the state’s leisure and hospitality sector are continuing. Arkansas’ tourism tax is up more than 10% between January and April, with average tourism sector jobs up more than 5% in the first four months of 2023. The Arkansas Tourism Ticker is managed by Talk Business & Politics, and sponsored by the Arkansas Hospitality Association.

Lewis was named the interim secretary in June when Mike Mills, founder of the Buffalo Outdoor Center in Ponca and a longtime advocate of the Natural State, announced he was stepping “away from the administration.” Travis Napper, state tourism director, left his position June 23 to take a job in tourism consulting. Napper was hired April 1, 2020, just as the COVID-19 pandemic effectively closed the national and state tourism markets. He notes on his LinkedIn profile that while he was in office Arkansas saw 24 consecutive months of record collections from the state’s 2% tourism tax on lodging and attractions that goes to the tourism marketing budget.

The re-opening of the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts in Little Rock and the grand opening of the U.S. Marshals Museum in Fort Smith are two of the tourism highlights so far this year, Lewis said.

“Both are major tourist draws for the state and region. In addition, a long-awaited hotel, The Louis, opened in Wilson earlier this year,” he said.

Lewis said much of the state’s tourism success can be attributed to the draw of the state’s outdoors. And along with the outdoor recreation, Arkansas has much to offer in terms of food, music and culture, Lewis said.

“Arkansas has long been known as The Natural State for a reason. Our clear running streams, mountain vistas and outdoor recreation have drawn travelers to Arkansas for decades, and that continues to be a strong selling point for the state,” Lewis said.

Arkansas has also been highlighted on the international stage. In June, Arkansas was a featured partner in the Black Deer Festival of Americana in Kent, England, and in National Geographic Traveller’s International Food Festival held in London in July.

“Both events put Arkansas on the map with thousands of potential travelers looking to experience true Americana by visiting the South. Attendees sampled Arkansas music and cuisine along with the hospitality that The Natural State is so well-known for.” Lewis said.

Trails are also vitally important to the state, Lewis said. Along with the hiking and biking trails that are a huge draw for outdoor recreation, Arkansa also has historic trails and other scenic byways that are “just waiting to be experienced,” Lewis said.

“For example, you can tour the Great River Road All-American Road, which is a family-friendly getaway of art, culture, history, unique food and much more. Another perfect example is the Delta Heritage Trail,” Lewis said.

The Great River Road All-American Road is a project being developed under the national “rails to trails” initiative, where former railroad lines are converted to pedestrian and bicycle routes. The trail is being developed in phases by Arkansas State Parks and is expected to be complete in 2025. It will stretch from six miles west of Helena and extend via the Mississippi River levee to Arkansas City, Lewis said.

Mountain bike trails and experiences are also big for Arkansas Tourism, he said. Outside Magazine recently rated Arkansas as the best mountain biking destination in the U.S.

“That’s something many Arkansans might be surprised to learn. From the world-class Oz Trails in Northwest Arkansas to the Monument Trails throughout the Arkansas State Parks system, Arkansas is truly a mecca for mountain biking,” Lewis said.

Arkansas has more trails rated as epic by the International Mountain Bicycling Association than anywhere else in the U.S., along with three IMBA Ride Center Cities and the first ever Regional Ride Center.

“There’s no doubt our promotional efforts are working when it comes to mountain biking as we continue to receive international recognition and accolades,” Lewis said.

Arkansas also gaining national attention in rock climbing, he said. Beyond those, Arkansas is home to unique attractions found nowhere else, Lewis added, noting visitors can dig for diamonds and keep what they find at Crater of Diamonds State Park in Murfreesboro; tour one of only two purse museums in the world at ESSE Purse Museum in Little Rock; and learn about two of Arkansas’s native sons at the Historic Dyess Colony Johnny Cash Boyhood Home in Dyess and the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum in Little Rock.

“And of course, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville is one of the finest collections around, blending a beautiful outdoor setting with world-class art. And The Momentary, a satellite museum of Crystal Bridges, offers a one-of-a-kind contemporary art space,” Lewis said.

As for the rest of 2023 and 2024, Arkansas will continue to celebrate the Arkansas State Parks Centennial through the year. War Memorial Stadium also celebrates its 75th anniversary this year and plans for the stadium’s anniversary celebration will be released soon, Lewis said. Part of the state’s tourism plan is, well, cosmic.

“On April 8, 2024, Arkansas is the place to be to experience the Great North American Eclipse. Nearly two-thirds of the state will be in the path of totality, which will run through the center of Arkansas from southwest to northeast. In addition to viewing the eclipse, many towns and communities across the state are planning festivals and other events. A record number of visitors is expected to travel to Arkansas for the eclipse,” Lewis said.