Tourism was up in Eureka Springs over the past year, welcome news for the little town that depends largely on tourism dollars to survive.
“The first five months of the year were chaotic. It was up and it was down,” says Mike Maloney, executive director of the Eureka Springs Advertising and Promotions Commission.
But end-of-year financial records showed an increase of almost 6 percent over 2016, with total advertising and promotion tax receipts ringing in at $166,423. That is up $9,063 from $157,360 last year, Maloney says.
“That is good for us and it’s an indicator that it would have gone strong into August and we’re expecting that to hopefully be an indicator of how the rest of the year is going to fly,” he says.
Maloney suspects the weather may be partially to thank for the increase. Collections were lower in April, which brought heavy rains and flooding to parts of Arkansas and Missouri and closed campgrounds in the area, but they rose during the mild summer months.
“I think that helped people pull people out and get them into our streets. We had a great surge in our restaurant and lodging during the late spring and summer,” says Maloney.
The economic upswing is good news for Mike Nichols, who owned the Ozark Mountain Hoe-Down Music Theater from 1990 until he sold it in 2001. He bought the business back last year.
“At one time, tourism was hopping. We were doing about 2 million tourists a year. With the theater I was selling out just about every night,” says Nichols. “It was hopping. There were four theaters and the Passion Play and we just had a lot going on. I know that the town began to die off and I think that for different reasons, it just did. And now, from all the forecasts that I can see, it is growing. It’s coming back.”
Ozark Mountain Hoe-Down operates five nights a week, April to mid-November, writing and producing a new family-friendly music and variety show each year. Nichols hopes to draw back people who saw the show years ago.
Kent Butler, director of marketing and public relations with the Passion Play and member of the Eureka Springs Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, has similar hopes for the event he champions.
“A lot of people are coming to see the Passion Play for the first time,” says Butler. “But what our challenge is is giving people who came to see the Passion Play 10 or 15 years ago a reason to come back. That’s why we always are looking for, not different stories to tell, but different ways to tell the story of Christ.”
The outlook is optimistic, but the town still has to combat its seasonal impression with tourists and convince people it’s a year-round destination.
The Passion Play grounds are open all year long, for example, offering the Bible Museum as well as Holy Land and backstage tours.
“The Crescent Hotel has gone full force into Christmas,” says Butler. “They have a lot of Christmas events and they really celebrate the season. They also have a lot of events that are in off-peak times that draw people in. “
As it stands for some businesses, making it through the quieter winter season is a matter of preparation.
“All theaters have to be like squirrels storing nuts to get them through the winter,” Nichols says. “Everybody who works there knows it’s seasonal work. You just have to plan accordingly and you can make it through.”
Photography by Sara Edwards Neal