Travel & Tourism: Big Business in Arkansas (Guest Commentary)

by Joe David Rice  on Monday, Mar. 7, 2011 12:00 am  

A lot can happen in a year's time.

When I drafted a similar column some 12 months ago, I had no idea that Arkansas would be in the national spotlight for a blackbird die-off that would claim thousands of birds (and soon be featured in a televised special on the National Geographic Channel), a major fish kill on the Arkansas River or a series of increasingly strong earthquakes in the Guy/Greenbrier area. Nor did I anticipate a winter that seemed to rival weather along the Canadian border.

We're always seeking additional exposure but generally prefer that it be a bit more positive.

The good news is that the state's tourism industry has many positive initiatives under way. A sampling:

  • Arkansas State Parks, in cooperation with the Ozark-St. Francis National Forests, is building the long-awaited Mississippi River State Park just north of Helena/West Helena near the confluence of the St. Francis and Mississippi rivers.
  • The Arkansas State Highway & Transportation Department has two new welcome centers in the works - one in West Memphis and the other in Helena/West Helena - which will be staffed by the Department of Parks & Tourism.
  • A pair of bicycle/pedestrian bridges is under construction in the greater Little Rock area, adding to central Arkansas' growing network of trails.
  • Meanwhile, Fort Smith boosters are eager to unveil the statue of legendary lawman Bass Reeves later this fall.
  • In northwest Arkansas, a private entrepreneur is building the Osage Creek Amphitheater, a $7 million complex scheduled to open July 3 with a Willie Nelson concert.
  • Investors from Kentucky and Arkansas are constructing a 21c Museum Hotel in Bentonville. This $28 million project will be a sister property to the original 21c in Louisville, the best hotel in the country, according to Condé Nast Traveler.
  • The newly renovated Wal-Mart Visitor Center in downtown Bentonville will be dedicated in the next few weeks.
  • And, of course, Alice Walton's magnificent Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art will open on Nov. 11 in Bentonville with a great deal of fanfare.

Our job is to promote these and other Arkansas attractions. Primarily funded by a statewide 2 percent lodging tax, Arkansas' research-based tourism marketing campaigns target prospective travelers in key markets within a day's drive of our borders. These cooperative efforts, involving dozens of private organizations and local visitor and convention bureaus, continue to pay off. In 2010, the Natural State hosted 22.8 million visitors who collectively spent more than $5.4 billion, or an average of nearly $15 million a day.

These travelers kept nearly 60,000 Arkansans on the tourism industry's payroll, and they also generated $285 million in state taxes.

What most of us don't appreciate is the extent that our tourists subsidize the Arkansas taxpayer. For instance, when you divide that $285 million by the state's 2,889,450 residents, you realize that every Arkansan's tax burden is reduced by $98.63 a year due to tourists. For a family of five, that's right at $500, which could be a couple of weeks' worth of groceries or maybe half a month's rent.

While there are many unpredictable factors out there (consumer confidence, the Middle East crisis, oil prices and disasters, both natural and manmade), we remain confident that 2011 will be a good year for Arkansas tourism. We have an aggressive campaign in the marketplace, our key feeder communities appear to be on the upswing, and our product continues to improve.

One area where we need some help is in the meeting and convention business. Many of you attend conferences outside the state on a regular basis. We have numerous first-class venues in Arkansas, and I hope you'll make a sincere effort to bring your colleagues and associates from around the country to the Natural State for a future meeting. Not only will you have a chance to show off your community, you'll cut down on your own expenses while helping our tax base.

It's a win-win for Arkansas.

(Joe David Rice is tourism director of the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism.)



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