by Lance Turner
Posted 3/27/2000 12:00 am
Updated 2 years ago
Those attending the 26th annual Governor's Conference on Tourism this week at Bentonville might rejoice over reports that visitor volume has increased in the Natural State.
But state park attendance numbers tell another story.
First, the good news: More than 26 million people visited Arkansas in 1999 — a 7 percent increase from 1998. A study by the Falls Church, Va., branch of D.K. Shifflet & Associates said the increase was due to a 5 percent increase in leisure visitors — to 17.4 million people — over 1998 numbers.
The not-so-good news: While visitor volume rose, state park attendance in 1999 fell 9 percent from attendance in 1998. Attendance at Arkansas parks — places like Greers Ferry Lake at Heber Springs, Bull Shoals Lake and Beaver Lake and State Park at Hindsville — often dropped about 10 percent, according to data from the state Department of Parks and Tourism.
Other attractions in Arkansas saw declines. Attendance at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs slipped 7.3 percent in the last year to 410,248 race fans. Southland Greyhound Park at West Memphis reported 8.4 percent fewer visitors with 594,176. Little Rock Zoo attendance dropped 12.16 percent amid accreditation woes and other controversies.
The attendance decline might underscore a change in the what tourists seek when they travel. According to Shifflet, studies by the Travel Industry Association of America, the National Parks Service and state tourism officials, travelers' interests have turned to culture and history, causing attendance declines at scenic parks that offer only natural beauty.
Some owe the phenomenon to the Baby Boomers, whose tastes have matured. Others say today's travelers have less vacation time and want more for their money. They say historic and cultural destinations often allow visitors to take more away from their trips than souvenirs made in Taiwan.
In Arkansas, state Parks and Tourism officials acknowledge the decline in attendance and say they're taking steps to improve the state's attractions and tweak marketing strategies. Thus far, the state Legislature has passed a round of tourism incentives, and voters have approved a 1/8- cent sales tax to replenish state tourism agencies' coffers.
And in response to trends toward historic and cultural attractions, the state Parks and Tourism and Heritage departments have produced two new brochures: "The Arkansas History and Heritage Trail Guide" and a forthcoming arts and entertainment guide to market Arkansas' cultural offerings.
Richard Davies, director of the state Parks and Tourism Department, said the items are in response to a 1998 Shifflet study that asked tourists why they don't come to Arkansas.
"The perception was we have little history and culture," he said. "But when we said, 'Well if we told you we had this place called the Arkansas Territorial Restoration [in Little Rock] ... the Ozark Folk Center [in Mountain View] ... [and] Pea Ridge," people would like to visit.
"It was a perception problem more than it was a product problem," he said.
'What's New in Arkansas?'
Dealing with perception problems is the latest in a series of state efforts to boost its tourism numbers, Davies said.
The state's Parks and Tourism director recalled years of marketing to a mass audience in cities throughout "the Egg" — the oval-shaped region that includes major markets in Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana and from which Arkansas attracts most of its visitors.
But as the state's attractions —and its Baby Boomers — aged, the state's market share eroded, Davies said. While Branson, Mo., broke attendance records with family-friendly music shows, Tunica, Miss., cashed in on riverboat gambling and Alabama offered duffers a new golf trail, the Natural State lagged.
"Everyone wanted to know, 'What's new in Arkansas?'" Davies said.
Researchers told the state to work with the resources it had, mostly its scenic beauty. Legislators took steps to provide incentives for tourism growth. They passed a 25 percent sales tax credit for operators; made matching grants available for cities and counties to invest in new tourism projects; and issued a $25 per night incentive for motorcoach operators to make overnight stops in Arkansas.
Voters made commitments, too. They approved a 1/8-cent sales tax to fund the state's tourism departments: 90 percent of the proceeds are split between the state Department of Game and Fish and the Department of Parks and Tourism; the Department of the Arkansas Heritage receives 9 percent; and the Keep Arkansas Beautiful project takes home 1 percent.
Those efforts, Davies said, go to care for the resources the state has.
"We need to ... take care of the natural part, because that still is an attraction, but we have to upgrade and expand the facilities that people expect these days," he said.
"A great example is there are portions of the Ouachitas that are as pretty as any place in America, but you'd have a hard time trying to find anywhere to spend a $20 bill," he said. "And if you think of tourism as an economic thing, if you buy a half a case of Cokes and a thing of bologna and a loaf of bread in Tulsa and come over here and hike all day and drive home, you hadn't done much for the economy here."
In short, Davies said the Baby Boomers want the scenic beauty with the modern luxuries: the cabin, the hot shower, the warm bed.
"What I want to do at darn near 50 and what I wanted to do at 25 has changed," he said. "And I think the market is changing and so the product is going to have to adjust to that."
For the most part, Davies said, the state can't control its product. It can only care for it. The message and media, however, are another story.
The "Heritage Trail Guide" brochure, which details the state's more than 100 historic sites, is an example, he said.
"We're becoming more and more targeted to specific interests," he said. "[The 'Heritage Trail Guide'] for instance, I think was advertised in American Heritage and Civil War Times and things like that, the antiques [guide] may go to history interest groups ..."
Research in a 1998 Shifflet report helped create the "Heritage Trail Guide." The report surveyed more than 2,000 households in Arkansas and seven regional states and found that cultural and historic attractions received the highest ratings among people who did not visit the state. That information, the reports said, indicated "that these types of products may be the most successful avenues toward growing visitation."
David Barna, spokesman for the National Parks Service, said historic and cultural parks have seen increases in attendance, while scenic destinations have seen flat or falling attendance numbers.
"Last year we had 280 million visitors to the National Parks Service, and that number's going up between 7-10 million a year. And most of that increase is at the cultural sites, and most of the natural sites are staying about the same," he said.
Barna said national travel trends lean toward theme travel, where people might visit several different sites, such as Civil War battlegrounds or stops on the Underground Railroad, the hidden trails out of the South that slaves followed to freedom.
"It seems as though there's an increased interest in the nation's history as opposed to getting away to back-to-nature kind of sites," he said.
More research echoes Barna's and Shifflet's findings. The Travel Industry Association of American reports that historic and cultural travelers spend more, stay in hotels more often, visit more destinations and are twice as likely to travel for entertainment purposes than other travelers.
None of this is news to Cathy Matthews, director the Department of Arkansas Heritage. She said she's always known historic and cultural travelers spend more and stay longer at their destination.
"I think that the tourism industry is just realizing that there is more than just recreation that people are interested in. And then when [the 1998 Shifflet] report came out, it said that actually those people spend more money, then it made people start sitting up and taking notice," she said. "We've always known that people are interested in those heritage things."
Parks and Tourism and the Heritage department worked together to create the heritage brochure, as well as the arts and entertainment guide, due around the first of May.
Other media accompanies the guide, according to Cranford Johnson Robinson Woods, the Little Rock advertising, marketing and public relations firm that handles the Parks and Tourism account. "Heritage Trail Guide" advertising appears in three national magazines: Civil War Times Illustrated, American Heritage and Preservation. The state's Television Broadcasters Association is also providing special TV ads promoting Arkansas heritage. Those ads will air in May. The agency expects more advertisements after July in the new fiscal year.
Behind the Trend
Little doubt exists that the state needs historical and cultural promotion. Unlike historic sites in many parts of the country, Arkansas' historical sites — like its scenic parks — have seen attendance declines.
According to the National Parks Service, estimated 1999 recreational visits at historical sites such as Gettysburg National Memorial Park in Pennsylvania, Vicksburg National Memorial Park in Mississippi and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., have increased.
Meanwhile, 1999 attendance at some historical sites in Arkansas has remained flat or dropped. Visits to Pea Ridge National Military Park and the Ozark Folk Center in Mountain View are off less than 1 percent; visits to Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park decreased 13.21 percent.
Meanwhile, Davies said the state must also find ways to make historical sites relevant and attractive to younger audiences, too. The advertising and promotion the state has created thus far, he said, isn't enough.
For example, visitors who request the state's general information packet, which they receive by calling 1-800-Natural, don't receive the "Heritage Trail Guide." Mailing costs make adding the packets more expensive, he said. Instead, the guide must be requested separately.
In other Parks and Tourism promotion, historic and cultural elements are present but scattered among other attractions. The "Arkansas Vacations" insert, which appeared in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and other newspaper statewide March 19, features those elements. But readers must hunt for them.
The tourism guides in the information packet are similar, Davies said.
"It talks about historic places, but it's got everything... so it's pretty diluted." he said. "There's a ton of historic parks, but you've got to sift through and find them. There's a ton of events based on historic things, but you've got to sift through and find them."
While attendance numbers sag and historic and cultural promotion gets under way, Davies and Matthews think their promotions partnership is working.
"Really, Parks and Tourism has the mechanism to do that. We don't," Matthews said of producing the brochures. "Because when they print things, they print hundreds of thousands of them, whereas we just don't have the budget to do that."
Any remaining talk of merging the departments, which the Murphy Commission — convened to survey government and look for places to trim the fat — recommended last summer, is dismissed. The administrative and promotions savings would be minuscule, and the Parks and Tourism and Heritage departments already benefit from one another's expertise through partnerships like the "Heritage Trail Guide," Davies said.
And the attendance numbers? Davies is optimistic. With incentives beginning to take effect and new attractions like Little Rock's River Market, the state's new convention centers and Magic Springs at Hot Springs, Davies sees better days ahead.
"What's new? Well, a lot of what's new is just now coming online," he said. "That's why I think this sort of a little dip."