High gas prices and airfare are causing many Americans to consider staying close to home for their summer vacations.
About six in 10 travelers said rising gas prices will impact their travel plans this summer, according to a March 2022 study by Longwoods International. Tourism leaders from across the state said they believe this is also the case for Arkansas residents.
Jeff LeMaster, chief of communications for the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism, said his division recognizes that higher prices are affecting people's decision-making when it comes to travel. He said the state's marketing around tourism has always focused on the value that the state provides tourists, offering a variety of experiences for affordable costs. He said state parks saw record visitation in 2021 with many first-time visitors, and high visitation has continued during 2022.
"There's ways to engage with Arkansas' natural beauty and our history and our heritage, and a lot of fun experiences to have that aren't going to break the bank for people," LeMaster said. "We're excited to share those again, and we're seeing more and more people engage with that, and that's exciting."
Randall "Jay" Townsend, chief public affairs officer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Little Rock District, said the organization's public parks are also an affordable option for families staying close to home this summer.
He said he's seen a "very big influx" of visitors in pandemic years and expects the trend to continue into this summer.
"With the prices of a lot of things going up, campsites are a lot more [of an] attractive offer than driving eight or nine hours to a beach somewhere," he said.
Townsend told the Democrat-Gazette that more than 70% of the organization's 5,659 campsites have already been reserved over the July 4th weekend. He encourages anyone who is interested in reserving a campsite to do so as soon as possible, as he predicts every campsite to be filled.
During the upcoming holiday, Townsend said visitors should be mindful of their neighbors, exercise patience and follow safety regulations.
"If everybody's respecting those rules, respecting the boundaries of their campsite and the others around them, it can be a really fun time," Townsend said.
Meanwhile, tourist communities across the state are also experiencing record numbers of visitors this summer.
Kalene Griffith, president and chief executive officer of Visit Bentonville, said the city brought in a record amount from tourism taxes during April 2022, indicating that more people are visiting. She said this may be in part due to Walmart's corporate headquarters returning to work in February, but she also believes that as gas prices rise, people are looking to stay closer to home, including those from "touch states" like Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri and Texas.
"[Visitors] can come here, they can see our museums, they can experience our cuisine," Griffith said. "It's an affordable trip for them to come to the area and get an experience without paying large amounts of money for gas by going a long distance."
Also, with two new hotels coming to downtown Bentonville, and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art's planned expansion, Griffith said her organization is anticipating continued growth.
The only challenge, she said, is a national one. With more visitors, she said the city's workforce needs to be strong enough to cover the needs of guests and permanent residents, something the community is still "working through." Despite this, she said people are able to book vacations short-term, on average about 6 to 10 days ahead of time, and encouraged hopeful travelers to have an open mind and consider all the possibilities available to them in Northwest Arkansas.
Bill Solleder, director of marketing for Visit Hot Springs, said gas prices are lower in Arkansas than they are in surrounding states, and he expects Hot Springs to benefit from those who decide to travel in-state this summer. He said revenue at nearby hotels and restaurants has been up since spring break, something he expects to continue through the July 4th weekend.
However, Mountain Home Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Dani Pugsley said her community first saw more visitors at the onset of the pandemic.
"We actually saw our increase when the world started to shut down and everybody was trying to get outdoors to spread out," Pugsley said. "There were a lot of people that found us for the first time and we had a huge influx of visitors."
She said this traffic has continued to grow, and within the past year, 500,000 people visited Mountain Home. In the past, local resorts filled up during summer months, but since, they've been booked all year, Pugsley said. The Red, White & Blue Festival, which took place Friday and Saturday, brings in 16,000 visitors each year. Pugsley said it's "nearly impossible" to find a place to stay if you haven't booked before Memorial Day.
Pugsley said she would encourage Arkansas residents to start close to home when planning their vacations this summer. She said the state is home to many unexpected hidden gems.
"When the gas prices are rising, and there's airplane nightmares, we're seeing people that are wanting to stay closer to home," Pugsley said. "What covid did more than anything is it showed a lot of us how much we truly appreciate what we have right here in our back yard."