Tourists Still Drawn by Arkansas' Lakes, Streams

If water were considered a tourist destination by itself, nothing else in Arkansas would come close to matching its popularity. Water is a big part of the attraction of a number of separate sites, including nine of the state's top 10.

In a very hot 1998, water was very attractive. With few exceptions, tourist areas where water was the primary draw could be consistently counted on to be more popular in 1998 than in 1997.

The state's 10 most popular water-related sites drew more than 30 million tourists in 1998. Technically, they drew more than 30 million visits, since that number includes native Arkansans and all of their multiple trips to in-state destinations.

The most popular is still north Arkansas' Bull Shoals Lake, with more than 5.7 million visitors, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Next is Greers Ferry Lake with well over 5.6 million visitors.

Lake Ouachita and State Park posted a gain, but DeGray Lake and State Park had more visitors. DeGray Lake itself is less than a third the size of Greers Ferry Lake or Lake Ouachita, but it drew well over half as many people as those two. The almost 800,000 additional people who visited last year makes DeGray the single largest gainer on the list.

Beaver Lake and Norfork Lake also saw a jump in attendance in 1998. Lake Dardanelle didn't gain much, but attendance at its neighboring parks was enough to make it the list's largest percentage gainer.

Hot Springs National Park is the only attraction in the top 10 that doesn't have the word "lake" in it, and it's the only attraction in the top 10 to fall a notch on the list. Still, it benefits from neighboring Lake Ouachita as well as the smaller Lake Hamilton and Lake Catherine.

Historically, racing has been Arkansas' second-biggest tourist attraction, but intercollegiate athletics in general - and the University of Arkansas Razorbacks in particular - are giving racing a different kind of run for its money.

Attendance at Oaklawn Park has fallen every year since 1990 - with the exception of 1992, the park's biggest year of the decade. However, when simulcast attendance later in the year is figured in, Oaklawn attendance maintains a comfortable lead over the Hogs.

"We're right at about a million people when you add in the simulcast," says Terry Wallace, Oaklawn track announcer and director of media relations. "We know we had 688,586 people attend the live season last year, and that's down from '97, but the per-day average in '98 was actually higher because we weren't open as many days."

Razorback sports attendance is also a game of estimates, since after football, basketball and baseball, exact figures are hard to come by. But 1998 attendance was 800,000, up about 100,000 from the year before, according to the university's sports information department. Many of the new faces in the stands saw the first football season of the Houston Nutt coaching era - football attendance was about 316,000, up from 280,723 in 1997.

So, in the course of a year, the horses still can be considered a more popular destination than the Hogs. The same can't be said for the dogs at Southland Greyhound Park in West Memphis, though. That park continues to lose visitors to the casinos in nearby Tunica, Miss., and the numbers were severe enough in 1998 to make both its attendance and percentage losses the biggest on the list.

Much of the bottom of the list saw wild swings in attendance one way or another. Wynne's Village Creek State Park was up almost 30 percent, while E. Fay Jones' Thorncrown Chapel at Eureka Springs was down an estimated 30 percent.

A spokeswoman for the Little Rock Air Force Base says the 20 percent drop in base visits in 1998 is an aberration.

"The Thunderbirds only performed at the air show one of the two days, and we had 170,000 people that day," Capt. Dani Johnson says. "We've already planned this year's air show, and the Blue Angels will be here both days. We're expecting 250,000-300,000 this year."

Popular attractions that didn't make the list included Wild River Country (180,000 visitors), the Ozark Folk Center State Park (178,262 visitors), Queen Wilhelmina State Park (170,834 visitors), and The Great Passion Play in Eureka Springs (165,000 visitors).