Tourism is the mainstay of the economy of many rural areas of Arkansas. In fact, it’s a huge industry for the state — a $5.6 billion industry, to be exact, and about $139 million was spent in Cleburne County last year.
“All of us understand the impact tourism has on our area,” said Jeff Lynch, Heber Springs Area Chamber of Commerce board chairman. “Tourism is one of the most important businesses.”
Richard Davies, Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism executive director, echoed those words as he addressed chamber members at its quarterly luncheon Wednesday at the Heber Springs Community Center.
He told the group that the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism offers grants for feasibility studies to see if an area could be considered a state tourist attraction.
“We take care of stuff and try to make it available to the public, and then we tell everyone we know,” Davies said about his job at the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, following that with several anecdotal stories about questions he fields in regard to Arkansas’ state parks.
“Why were there so many Civil War battles fought at state parks?” He said with a chuckle as he followed that question with a sarcastic answer: “Because we keep the grass cut, and they have clean bathrooms just in case a battle breaks out.”
In the 1960s, the department built welcome centers, where upon entering the state on a highway, a tourist could stop and get information on what was available throughout the state.
“We’ve replaced all but two: Memphis and Helena, which are being redone now,” Davies said. “Those welcome centers are the front door to our state.”
Cleburne County has many tourist draws, such as Sugar Loaf Mountain, the Little Red River and Greers Ferry Lake. Parks and Tourism helps get the word out about the areas vacationers can visit in Arkansas, and a clever marketing campaign is a way to do that.
“They don’t make any more tourists; you have to steal them from somebody else,” Davies said. “Tourism is a competitive business. … Everybody is fighting over a finite amount of people.”
He said families who sit around the kitchen table making their vacation plans usually have a short list of places they would like to visit. Because of the Internet, Parks and Tourism doesn’t mail out nearly as many visitor’s packets as it once did. The 4.9 million visitors to its website, arkansas.com, proves that people are looking for vacation spots around Arkansas.
The department has four travel writers, two photographers and an editor who maintain blogs filled with tourism information, such as information about festivals, adventures at state parks and food.
Davies said niche marketing seems to be the way to go with tourism because tourists want packages, such as a girlfriend getaway or a fishing trip.
“We’ve always had all this stuff, but now they’re just packaged different,” he said. “Tourists are lazy, and they want things in a package.”
Staff writer Jeanni Brosius can be reached at (501) 244-4307 or firstname.lastname@example.org.