Bull Shoals Hottest Tourist Attraction

The biggest tourist draw in Arkansas isn't a festival or a racing track. The state's abundant water is its most popular attraction.

Lakes and streams attracted nearly 35 million visitors last year, according to information compiled by Arkansas Business.

Of course, that number doesn't imply that tens of millions of out-of-state tourists came to Arkansas to enjoy our lakes. Many of those visits were made by Arkansans - and many residents visited multiple attractions last year.

By a slender margin, the most popular tourist spot in the state was Bull Shoals Lake in north Arkansas with 5.7 million visitors in 1997, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Greer's Ferry Lake, another popular Corps-managed lake, attracted 5.6 million visitors last year.

In fact, with the exception of Hot Springs National Park, the 10 top tourist attractions in the state are lakes (at No. 4, Hot Springs National Park isn't a lake but does draw visitors from its nearby lakes, Hamilton, Catherine and Ouachita).

Other than lake usage, the second-most popular tourist business in Arkansas is racing. Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs and Southland Greyhound Park in West Memphis are Nos. 12 and 11, respectively. Combined, the two racing tracks pulled in nearly 1.5 million visitors in 1997.

However, attendance at both tracks has been down in recent years (see pullout chart on Oaklawn). In 1997, Oaklawn had it slowest year in recent memory and attendance at Southland was also down. Southland attracted 730,000 visitors last year, down from 813,000 in 1996 and 850,000 in 1995.

After racing, the next most-popular tourist draw is University of Arkansas Razorback sporting events with about 700,000 spectators last year.

Razorback basketball drew 289,818 spectators to Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville in 1997. Home football games in both Fayetteville and Little Rock attracted some 280,723 fans. Women's basketball, baseball and other sports account for the remainder.

Other popular tourist draws include the Arkansas State Fair and Livestock Show, the Little Rock Zoo and the Arkansas Arts Center and Decorative Arts Museum.

Other Attractions

Falling off this year's list is the Aerospace Education Center, which had 113,287 visitors in 1997 (see related cover story). The Aerospace Center had 186,288 visitors in 1996, its first full year of operation.

Other attractions that had been included on previous Arkansas Business tourism lists but aren't in this year's top 30 include Arkansas State University athletics in Jonesboro (about 175,000 spectators), Wild River Country in North Little Rock (about 175,000 visitors), The Great Passion Play in Eureka Springs (165,902 visitors) and the annual Riverfest in Little Rock (135,000 participants).

Other popular state parks with a sizeable number of visitors last year included Lake Chicot State Park (167,482 visitors), Millwood State Park (134,988 visitors), Woolly Hollow State Park (123,010 visitors) and Cane Creek State Park (104,778 visitors).

Pullout Graphic

Oaklawn's Attendance Since 1988

Year Attendance

1988 1,194,689

1989 1,010,697

1990 1,143,293

1991 1,125,025

1992 1,155,279

1993 1,078,352

1994 978,637

1995 897,045

1996 782,776

1997 704,050

Source: Oaklawn Park.