‘Excitement, momentum’ leading tourism sector forward

by George Jared ([email protected]) 364 views 

Tourism, the state’s second-largest economic sector, has surged since the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, and sector stakeholders think this year may even be better. More than 500 people are attending the 50th annual Arkansas Governor’s Conference on Tourism in Jonesboro, which began Sunday (Feb. 25) and will run through Tuesday (Feb. 27).

Gov. Sarah Sanders gave one of the keynote addresses Monday during the Arkansas Tourism Hall of Fame luncheon at the Red Wolf Convention Center. The governor noted that in 2022, nearly 50 million people visited the state, and it generated nearly $9 billion in economic activity.

The number of visitors that year was a 17% uptick from the previous year. Numbers for 2023 will be released later this spring, Arkansas Tourism Director Dalaney Thomas told Talk Business & Politics. Sanders, an avid duck hunter, said that she has been an outdoor tourist in Northeast Arkansas for many years.

“There has never been so much excitement and momentum for our state’s tourism industry. … Jonesboro is on absolute fire,” she said.

Sanders has set as a goal for her administration to double the size of the state’s tourism industry.

Two industry leaders – retired Arkansas State Parks Region 3 Supervisor Marcel Hanzlik and North Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau President and CEO Karen Trevino – were the two newest inductees into the state’s Tourism Hall of Fame.

Hanzlik began his career with State Parks in 1981 at the Crater of Diamonds State Park in Murfreesboro. His first job in the industry was relatively easy since it’s the only place in the United States where you can hunt for diamonds for free, but his next position as a leader in the Arkansas Delta would prove more of a challenge, he said.

“What a diamond in the rough it was,” he said of his transition to the Delta.

It didn’t take Hanzlik long to realize that the region had some major advantages when compared to other parts of the state and country, he said. Virtually all types of recreational activities can be enjoyed in the region, and people come from all over the country to hunt and fish in the area.

Blues and rock-n-roll music were born in the Delta along with many historical haunts that musicians used to play in, he said. The Delta offers a broad and unique range of culinary options along with festivals and other attractions that lure tourists to this part of the state.

During his career, one of his pinnacle accomplishments was the passage of Amendment 75, which established the 1/8-cent conservation sales tax in 1996. He was instrumental in getting the legislation passed. He also played a role in the Crowley’s Ridge Parkway and the Great River Road receiving National Scenic Byways status.

Trevino told the crowd that her devotion to the tourism sector has been so ingrained in her that she used to sign her checks “Karen Tourism.” Prior to her work at the North Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau, she worked as the administrator of the Arkansas Tourism Development Foundation, and she owned Studio One Dance in North Little Rock.

She has also worked as a tourism instructor for the Arkansas Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management Institute at Pulaski Technical College. She is the former director of operations for the Arkansas Hospitality Association and group travel consultant for the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism.

During her career, she has sat on a slew of boards, including stints with the Argenta Community Theater, Argenta Downtown Council and Arkansas Association of Convention and Visitors Bureau, among others. She said that her career in the sector has given her everything – she even met her husband through her work.

“I’m so honored to receive this award and recognition. … I believe that tourism is all about relationships.”