Arkansas Tourism: Another View (Joe David Rice Commentary)

It never hurts to take a look at yourself or your location through the eyes of others. I was reminded of this adage as the last of the 560 guests from the Travel South Showcase left Arkansas in late February following their convention in Little Rock.

First, a few words about these delegates. About 100 were professional tour operators, the entrepreneurs who own those large coaches and bring groups of 40 to 50 travelers at a time to various destinations across the country. About 400 represented hotels, attractions and tourism-promotion organizations. The rest were journalists.

For most, it was their initial visit to the Natural State. A few had driven across Arkansas, never really getting off the interstates, and a handful had been here years ago. Looking back on it, I guess you could say we had a rather large focus group at our disposal.

An advance wave of 54 writers, reporters and tour operators arrived several days before the conference and experienced southwestern and northwestern Arkansas via what the industry calls “familiarization tours.” Two groups visited DeGray, Hot Springs, Mount Magazine, Altus, Petit Jean, Heifer Village and nearby attractions. The other two groups saw Fort Smith, Van Buren, the Arkansas & Missouri Railroad, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Eureka Springs and other points of interest.

About the time these travelers returned to Little Rock, the remaining 500 or so folks showed up. That evening, a Sunday, the entire group enjoyed an eye-opening reception at the Clinton Presidential Center; for most it was their first time in a presidential library. After a full day of meetings and appointments on Monday, the conventioneers dined at central Arkansas restaurants before adjourning to Cajun’s Wharf where they contributed more than $7,500 to Heifer International’s Seeds of Change project. After another busy day, the conference ended Tuesday night with a memorable evening at the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion.

I wish you could have heard the comments as the convention wound to a close. Those who’d been on the tours gave rave reviews to our state parks, the kind and helpful people in the towns they visited, the incredible diversity of Arkansas’ attractions and the beauty of the countryside. And they were simply amazed — stunned might be the better word — by Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, with many promising to return with friends and family at the first opportunity.

And those who never got beyond Little Rock’s city limits were equally generous in their praise of Arkansas’ capital city. They’d apparently expected a quiet little Southern town stuck in the 20th century and discovered a dynamic and progressive city that charmed their socks off. The convention facilities wowed the group as did the convenience of the Bill & Hillary Clinton National Airport to our central business district. The one-two punch of the Clinton Center and Heifer International certainly got their attention. Same for the trolley system, the network of bicycle/pedestrian trails and bridges and the city’s fascinating array of museums. Lastly, the friendliness of our central Arkansas residents left a positive impression.

Let me close by mentioning that the group of journalists also noted that Arkansas is one of the few states in the country providing new, technologically sophisticated welcome centers. They recognized that Arkansas voters had approved a sales tax increase to enhance and improve our state park system and other conservation programs. They were told about the forthcoming U.S. Marshals Museum in Fort Smith and heard about the ambitious Razorback Greenway project in the state’s northwestern corner. And they were excited about the restoration of Johnny Cash’s boyhood home in Dyess.

So while we have lots to be worried about — fiscal cliffs, nagging unemployment, sequestration and climate change, among other issues — your Arkansas tourism industry continues to make strides. What you may not realize is that our travelers paid slightly more than $301 million in state taxes last year. If you divide that number by our 2.9 million residents, you’ll discover that tourists in Arkansas contributed $103 per state resident in 2012, equivalent to lightening the tax burden on a family of five by $515.

One more thing: That Travel South Showcase group spent $600,000 while in Arkansas.

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