State of the State 2024: April eclipse, cycling events to help boost Arkansas tourism in 2024

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 968 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.

Arkansas tourism is now a $9.2 billion industry, and with big events planned in the coming months, 2024 is expected to be a big year for the state’s leisure and hospitality sector.

A study conducted by Tourism Economics and released in October by the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism said 48.3 million people visited Arkansas in 2022, up 15.4% from 41.2 million visitors in 2021. Those additional visitors spent $1.2 billion more than what was spent in 2021, the report said.

“We can, with great confidence, say that Arkansas’ tourism industry has fully recovered – and then some – from setbacks of the COVID pandemic,” said Shea Lewis, secretary of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism.

The highest spending categories by visitors in 2022 were transportation, food, and lodging. According to the study, lodging accounted for the largest increase in overall visitor spending – $1.6 billion, up  23% from 2021. In 2022, the 2% tax collections increased by 15.8% to $24.3 million, the report states.

“The lodging numbers are very important because the greatest bulk of 2% tourism reinvestment tax dollars are generated by our lodging partners,” Lewis said. “Those dollars are almost entirely paid by out-of-state visitors and are used to fund our very successful marketing efforts.”

Other tourism sectors also saw growth in 2022. Transportation spending grew 21.8% from $2.4 billion in 2021 to $2.9 billion in 2022. Food and beverage grew from $2.3 billion to $2.5 billion. Retail went up 10% to $1.1 billion, and recreation went up 20% to $1.2 billion. Overall, $752 million in tax receipts from visitors were collected, which is a 15.2% increase. Of the total, $536 million was for state taxes. The remaining $216 million were local funds throughout the state.

The study says each Arkansas household would need to pay an additional $866 annually to replace visitor-generated taxes received by the state of Arkansas and local municipalities, a news release from the tourism department said.

The Arkansas tourism industry also supported 68,098 jobs, a 6% increase from 2021, earning $2.1 billion. Tourism supports 3.9% of all jobs in Arkansas.

The report also showed the indirect and induced impact tourism had in Arkansas. The combined impact was $6.5 billion. When all is considered, tourism’s impact on Arkansas’ economy was $15.7 billion in 2022, its total employment was 97,839 jobs and state and local taxes exceeded $1 billion, the news release said.

“We are quite pleased with the results of the 2022 economic impact study,” Lewis said. “These outstanding numbers are a direct result of our renewed emphasis on growing our outdoor recreational economy, whether it be various forms of biking, climbing, watersports, hunting and fishing. Our marketing message is effective, and we are taking that message into new markets and effectively attracting new visitors who can enjoy The Natural State all year long.”

Lewis said there are some good things moving Arkansas forward going into 2024. The tourism department is in the process now of gearing up for the 50th anniversary of the Governor’s Conference on Tourism, which will be Feb. 25-27.

One of the big events that Lewis and Director of Arkansas Tourism Dalaney Thomas think will draw tourists to the state this year is a total solar eclipse. When the Moon passes between the Sun and Earth on April 8, a 117.9-mile-wide “shadow” will move northeast from the southwest corner of Arkansas at around 1:46 p.m. and exit the state around 2 p.m. near Pocahontas. The period of darkness for any location is estimated to last around 4 minutes. According to NASA, the next total solar eclipse to travel across the contiguous U.S. will be on Aug. 23, 2044.

“For us, it’s really interesting. We’ve been talking about the eclipse for at least three or four years leading up to this moment,” Lewis said. “I think we’ve done a really good job of promoting the fact, especially within state parks.”

Arkansas state parks are a popular location for those wanting to view the eclipse, and a lot of the spots available at those parks are already filled, Lewis said.

“But there are still opportunities for visitors to visit some of our municipalities, our cities, our downtown areas. There are still lodgings available there,” he said.

The eclipse may also be a chance for those who have not visited Arkansas in a while to remember the area and have a positive experience that causes them to come back to many areas of the state.

“It’s going to be a big deal. We just can’t wait for Arkansas to shine,” Lewis said.

Another big event for Arkansas will be The Big Mountain Enduro, the premier Enduro tour in North America. This race series offers some of the biggest and most challenging mountain bike terrain in the country that often includes a combination of backcountry and lift-accessed stages throughout the series. Round One of the race will be May 4-5 at Mount Nebo near Dardanelle. The race then moves to Windrock, Tenn.

This is the second year Arkansas has been a part of the race. Mount Nebo State Park’s Monument Trail also hosted the season opener of the Big Mountain Enduro race in 2023 and was the only 2023 Big Mountain Enduro host location outside of the Rocky Mountains.

The inaugural Arkansas Graveler is also scheduled for 2024. The approximately 340-mile cycling event will be June 23-28 across the northern part of Arkansas. It will emphasize state parks, public lands, community giveback, and cultural experiences unique to the state.

“It’s an invitation, bringing together cyclists, local communities, chefs, creatives, families and friends,” the website states. “Our goal is to evoke the ultimate sense of freedom by bike with an unforgettable grassroots adventure.”

Thomas said the event will connect northwest Arkansas with northeast Arkansas across multiple days of graveling or gravel riding.

“We have put a lot of effort into the promotion of the outdoor recreation industry and continuing the idea that Arkansas is a destination, a world-renowned destination for outdoor recreation. That’s world-class paddling or mountain biking, hiking, vistas and viewsheds that you can’t see anywhere else,” Lewis said.

The department is also working to elevate experiences in Arkansas state parks, which means continuing to find ways to honor tradition while seeking innovation, he said. Thomas said the state is focused on storytelling when it comes to promoting tourism. That includes five pillars the tourism department is focusing to define in promoting the state. Those pillars include recreation, hunting and fishing, culinary (food experiences that can only be found in the state), arts and culture, and music and events, she said.

“Ultimately, we aim to elevate the image of Arkansas. That’s ultimately our goal – elevating our image and inviting guests to Arkansas,” Lewis said.