Many of Arkansas' recreational sites are drowning — not in historic flooding, but in phone calls about flooding, say state tourism representatives who are working overtime to combat the perception that high water has the state closed to business.
"We want to have all the compassion we can have for the people that are affected, because none of us want to go through that, but we also need to remind our customers, our touch states and our own people, that the summer is not ruined," Bill Barnes told Arkansas Business this week. "The state is not flooded.
"There are tons and tons of Arkansans that are looking forward to welcoming people to their places for the summer," he said. "We really have a very full glass of wonderful natural resources in our state that aren't affected."
Barnes owns three resorts on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lakes that did not flood and are not flooded: Mountain Harbor Resort on Lake Ouachita, Iron Mountain Lodge and Marina on Lake DeGray and Self Creek Lodge and Marina on Lake Greeson.
He also serves on a Corps of Engineers Advisory Committee and on the State Parks Recreation and Travel Commission, which held a special meeting Monday to discuss how to battle, with positive messaging, the damaging misperception that Arkansas is to be avoided amid flooding along the Arkansas River.
Staff with the state Department of Parks and Tourism told the commission at the meeting that it they will spend money on national ads, social media campaigns and other marketing to spread the word that Arkansas is open to tourism.
Many at that meeting complained that national media has sensationalized the news and that national outlets have not made it clear that the flooding is "isolated." They said having "Arkansas" in the name of the river has led to the assumption that the entire state has been affected by floods.
Tourism professionals have been hesitant to quantify what effect the perception has had on the industry's bottom line, but there's a lot at stake. Tourism is the second largest industry in Arkansas, with an annual economic impact of about $7.5 billion. The industry employs more than 116,000 people.
Steve Arrison, CEO of Visit Hot Springs, said at the meeting that leisure visitors were down 13 percent the first weekend the Arkansas River was flooding.
"The message, if you looked at the national media, it was sort of cloudy," he said. "Everyone thinks because it's called the Arkansas River because it affects all of Arkansas … The majority of the state hasn't been impacted."
Arrison said he was glad to see state officials getting the message out that lakes are unaffected and open for business.
One concern expressed at the meeting was that the IDriveArkansas.com, which shows road conditions throughout the state, can make it look as if large swaths of Interstate 40 are closed. Arkansas' interstate system, including Interstates 30 and 40, is clear for travel, though several state highways are shuttered.
At Barnes' resorts, lodging occupancy is down. He said his properties and the Corp of Engineers office on Lake Ouachita have been fielding calls asking whether the lakes are flooded or whether they're filled with debris because of the flooding.
"I don't know what this number is, but imagine, for every person that calls to ask, how many just said, 'Well, let's just go somewhere else.' … I would bet for every person that makes the effort to call to check, I'll bet there are five that don't," Barnes said.
On top of that, he said the state is part of a region heavy with recreational options, including Branson, Missouri, and beaches in the Gulf of Mexico, and this year's summer season is a shorter than normal because children got out of school later and are going back sooner.
Barnes' resorts aren't the only places inundated with calls.
A Buffalo National River Park spokeswoman said it had gotten a couple of dozen calls a week since the flooding began even though the Buffalo is a free-flowing river not connected to any dams. Fortunately, she said the park hasn't seen more cancellations than usual this time of the year.
Taylor Scott of Devil's Den State Park said it's been fielding calls and emails from both inside the state and beyond because it's close to Fort Smith, which has been affected by flooding.
Day use is down, probably because people from Fort Smith who usually visit the park have more important things to worry about right now, he said. But the park's campgrounds are full.
The only state park closed is Pinnacle Mountain State Park in Little Rock, and it does not offer camping.