Kane Webb, executive director of the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, has one word to describe the state’s tourist trade.
“Growth, growth and more growth,” he said. “In the tourism, hospitality and travel industries, and in our parks department too, we’re really seeing an upward trend line.”
One key measurement of this growth is collection of the 2 percent tourism tax levied on hotels and attractions, monies that are then used in marketing the state. According to statistics supplied by Parks and Tourism, the state has enjoyed seven consecutive years of growth in the amount of tax collected, the last down year being in fiscal year 2010.
In terms of dollars, FY 2017’s tax receipts came in just shy of $16 million, nearly double the amount collected in FY 2001. This year is trending similarly upward; just two months in, tax revenues are up over 3 percent year-over-year. And the impressive numbers don’t end there.
“On the parks side, we’ve got 52 state parks in 48 counties; we do business with some 3,000 different businesses,” Webb said. “We have, probably, an economic impact of close to $1 billion from our state parks. We have 8 million visitors a year that come to our state parks and when they get there, they go to other attractions. So, we’re sharing the wealth.”
Webb said even though the demographic of Arkansas’ visitors hasn’t deviated much from previous years, the growth in the number of visitors can be attributed to the continuing investment, both public and private, in attractions relevant to the state’s visitors and native, stay-at-home vacationers.
“Arkansas does have some ‘new rides’ now,” he said. “If you look at what we had 15 or 20 years ago and what’s there today – Presidential Library in Little Rock, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville – these are huge international game changers.”
“Then you can look at smaller items that have popped up like the Johnny Cash boyhood home [in Dyess] which is a big attraction. It’s a destination attraction. People come there for that, it’s not a side thing. In El Dorado, the Murphy Arts District just opened phase one in the fall, it’s getting ready to open phase two. That’s going to be a $100 million project by the time that’s done. That changes the game down in south Arkansas.”
Aside from the new and shiny, Arkansas also continues to benefit from a wealth of natural amenities that have been around forever but are perfectly in step with the vacationer of today.
“What the modern contemporary traveler is looking for these days, driven by the millennials, is that experience,” Webb said. “They want to ride their bike. They want to canoe. They want to shop local and eat local cuisine and see things that are only unique to that area. All of that combines to put Arkansas in a really good spot right now. Plus, we’re affordable.”
The next challenge, Webb said, is getting more communities statewide to follow the lead of places like El Dorado to invest in and improve local tourism infrastructure.
“We’re still building our tourism infrastructure, so to speak, but we’re seeing a change in attitude where people understand that quality of life and tourism is economic development,” he said. “If you invest in bringing back your downtown or having more hotels or having more attractions, that brings money into the community and you see the dollars churn.”
“A lot of it is really a change of philosophy that this is a burgeoning and strong industry in the state. If fact, it’s one of the fastest growing industries in the state and we should embrace it in any way we can. We’re seeing that across Arkansas.”