2024 Eclipse Seen as Historic Tourism Opportunity

Bill Solleder, the director of marketing for Visit Hot Springs.  Hot Springs is preparing for record tourism on Monday, April 8, 2024, when a solar eclipse has Hot Springs directly in its path of totality. Locally owned hotels are already fully booked.
Bill Solleder, the director of marketing for Visit Hot Springs. Hot Springs is preparing for record tourism on Monday, April 8, 2024, when a solar eclipse has Hot Springs directly in its path of totality. Locally owned hotels are already fully booked. (Karen E. Segrave)

The moon will cast a huge ribbon of darkness across Arkansas on April 8, 2024, and the total solar eclipse is certain to be a bright spot for state tourism, potentially the biggest draw ever.

Hundreds of towns from Texarkana to Piggott will be in the zone of totality, a 123-mile-wide southwest-to-northeast swath where the eclipse will black out the sun for up to 4½ minutes.

While tourism officials can’t predict more than a year out how many eclipse chasers will view the event here, they say some states that were in the eclipse zone in 2017 estimated that they saw up to 1.6 million additional visitors.

Little Rock will be in the totality zone, as will tourism towns like Hot Springs, Heber Springs and Mountain View. Preparations are already being made for providing viewing sites, portable toilets and RV parking spots for visitors, not to mention motel rooms and other accommodations.

Travis Napper

“This is going to be a really big deal,” state Tourism Director Travis Napper said. “We don’t have a number, but we have some historical numbers from states like Wyoming from 2017, which had almost a half a million visitors estimated. South Carolina supposedly had 1.6 million. We believe this will be by far the largest tourism event across the state that we’ve ever seen.”

Some hotels are already taking reservations, although most national chains accept them only a year or less in advance. Hotel rates for dates surrounding the eclipse may triple in price, state officials say, and because eclipse-seekers are known to book rooms in several spots to provide bad-weather options, many hoteliers will likely apply no-cancellation policies.

Though the total eclipse won’t be completely statewide, Napper expects practically every corner of the state to benefit. “That’s because of the sheer amount of people that will be here; lodging and dining will be needed in other places. We couldn’t find anything that’s comparable for its potential of sustaining this many parts of the state,” he said.

The zone of totality runs up through the Interstate 30 corridor and along U.S. 65 from Conway to the north, and the state has been coordinating with local officials, tourism industry partners and others since at least 2020, Napper said. 

“It’s going to catch a little bit of Fort Smith, Heber Springs will be in there, Mountain Home and Mountain View, Texarkana and Hope, all the way up through Jonesboro. We’re going to need lodging for lots of people.”

Counting Down

The state’s tourism website, arkansas.com, includes an eclipse countdown, listing the 400-odd days, hours, minutes and seconds to 1:45 p.m. April 8.

“We’ve been on an awareness tour within the industry, providing insights we’ve learned from other states and cities to advertising and promotion entities, chambers of commerce, hospitality groups and others,” Napper said.

The state has even consulted NASA to explain the eclipse as a natural phenomenon and detail its path and timing. The space agency is offering an extreme long-term weather projection for the day, predicting partly cloudy skies.

“It sounds unbelievable, but apparently NASA has a pretty good track record with these long-term weather projections, and it predicts that Arkansas will be second only to Texas for eclipse-viewing weather next year,” said Bill Solleder, marketing director for Visit Hot Springs.

Hot Springs National Park is perpetually one of the state’s largest tourist attractions, and the town has lakes, trails and other big draws including Oaklawn Racing Casino, which will be in its thoroughbred racing season.

“We’re expecting a lot of eclipse chasers in Hot Springs, and the timing is good,” Solleder said. “It will be spring break in some states, it’s coming in racing season, and it’s on a Monday, so we’re planning events for the whole weekend.”

Hot Springs will offer multiple viewing sites, as will other tourist towns like Heber Springs.

Mountain View Mayor Roger Gardner already has commitments from 150 RV owners to see the eclipse in his town, home to the Ozark Folk Festival and Ozark Folk Center State Park. “The man I talked to was from Green Bay, Wisconsin, and he started out looking for space for 50 RVs, but he kept calling back as he heard from more folks,” Gardner said. “A hundred and fifty motor homes is a lot for a town like Mountain View,” population 2,900. Mayor Richard McCormac of Clinton, population 2,500, expects traffic jams along U.S. 65.

Heber Springs Mayor Kasey Griffin said her town of 7,000 could triple in size, bulging even more than it does when Greers Ferry Lake draws thousands of July 4th visitors. “I’m worried about traffic, the infrastructure, trash and water,” she said. “I’ve already ordered 30 porta-potties and 50,000 pairs of eclipse glasses.” 

The state is coordinating a huge bulk order of the glasses, which are necessary for protecting the eyes while viewing the eclipse. Though the final number won’t be known for a while, it is expected to run into the millions. 

“Yep, we’re trying to do that to help our communities have these available, and get them at the best cost,” Napper said. 

Solleder has been coordinating Hot Springs’ planning with the city manager, fire and police departments and the National Park Service. “We want to all be prepared for what could be an extremely large amount of people flooding into town and then getting stuck here,” he said. “Will we have the water for them, or enough food at our restaurants? Do we have portable toilets, and plans to keep the mess down? It’s something that we do all the time for big events with large crowds like our St. Patrick’s Day Parade and Oaklawn events, but this will be on an even bigger scale.”

B&Bs Sold Out

The first priority was ensuring the city was ready, Solleder said, followed by consulting with hotels.

“Some of the independent brands have already begun selling rooms, and some of the smaller bed and breakfasts and Airbnbs have actually already sold out. But we’re waiting to get the information out to potential visitors as to which hotels are accepting reservations, and what their criteria will be, including minimum stays and cancellation policies.”

Visit Hot Springs is encouraging hoteliers not to raise their room rates for the eclipse, but some certainly will, Solleder said. “It’s been a little less about promotion, and a lot more about logistics and preparation.”

Talks with Oaklawn, the Mid-America Science Museum, Garvan Woodland Gardens and other Hot Springs attractions have been fruitful, he said. Magic Springs is considering opening for the eclipse, even though it will come in the amusement park’s off season.

“We want to try to distribute viewing sites around Hot Springs just to kind of push the people around and not have them all focus on downtown,” Solleder said. “It’s a matter of getting people to think a year or more ahead.”

‘Historic Event’

Mike Mills, the new secretary of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage & Tourism, told Arkansas Business that the 2017 partial solar eclipse was a historic event for the state, with many communities tripling in size with visitors.

“Hotels, motels, bed and breakfasts, campsites and any entity offering overnight lodging altered rates (sometimes as much as triple normal prices) because it became a supply and demand situation. Minimum stays were increased, and cancellation policies extended due to the possibility of last-minute cancellations. Restaurants offered eclipse-themed specials and saw large increases in customers.”

Gardner, the Mountain View mayor, expects RV travelers to fill up the vicinity’s three motor home parks, and has arranged for extra space in open fields. “All the RV parks have a dump station, you know. And if worse comes to worse, we could designate a couple manholes for dumping if we have to. I don’t want to, because I’m particular about our sewers, but we may have to.”