Arkansas tourism returned strong after being hit hard by the pandemic, with the Natural State playing host to roughly a third more tourists in 2022 than in 2019.
While those visitors also generated more money for the state than before covid-19 first emerged, Arkansas in 2022 continued to lag behind most of its neighbors in the total dollar amount tourists spent.
The figures come from economic impact reports available from the tourism divisions of Arkansas, Texas, Missouri, Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana, as well as the U.S. Travel Association. Oklahoma hasn't yet released its 2022 report. The metrics by which these figures are determined may vary from state to state, however.
Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, along with state and local officials, highlighted 2022's tourism outcomes at an Oct. 23 news conference, during which Sanders also announced that former CJRW advertising agency account manager Dalaney Thomas would serve as the director of tourism at the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism.
"It is easy to forget, but just three years ago the entire tourism industry was on the rocks, shuttered restaurants, empty hotels," the Republican governor said. "Some were actually saying that our tourism industry would never bounce back from the pandemic, but ... we are back and we are better than ever, thanks to amazing leadership and partnership from many of those of you who are here today."
Sanders took office in January, meaning the report reflects state outcomes under the administration of the previous governor, Asa Hutchinson. Regardless, tourism is Arkansas' second-largest industry, and Sanders has described it as one of her top priorities.
Arkansas saw more than 48 million visitors in 2022, up from roughly 41 million in 2021 and about 36 million in 2019. Those visitors spent $9.2 billion in 2022, a 15.4% increase over 2019 and 2022.
Of the four neighboring states for which economic impact reports include the number of their visitors, Tennessee saw the most, with about 141 million, followed by Arkansas. Mississippi had the fewest, with roughly 24 million visitors. Texas' economic impact report did not include the number of visitors to that state.
Of the five neighboring states for which data on visitor spending is available, Texas saw the greatest amount, $91.7 billion, and Mississippi saw the least, $7 billion. While Oklahoma hasn't released its 2022 report,the state's economic report for 2021 indicates travel spending for that year was $10.1 billion.
Arkansas has the fewest number of direct tourism jobs compared against the four surrounding states for which 2022 data was available, at 68,098, followed by Mississippi, at 80,517. Texas brought in the most, with roughly 1.2 million.
Nationally, travel throughout the United States accounted for $1.2 trillion in direct spending in 2022, according to the U.S. Travel Association.
Although the state reported an increase for 2022 in visitors and spending over 2019, operations within the industry have garnered some scrutiny and, in some instances, controversy over the past year.
Former Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism Secretary Mike Mills resigned from that position June 2, after less than six months with the agency. Earlier in the year, Mills expressed disagreement with the governor's office over how the department's affairs should be managed, and state officials exchanged differing views over first gentleman Bryan Sanders' interest in managing an advertising account. Shea Lewis was later picked to replace Mills.
Another contentious subject has been the status of the Buffalo National River. Runway Group, a Bentonville-based firm, has proposed having the river redesignated as a national park and preserve. Supporters of the idea have said it would result in more visitors and an increase in federal funding, though opponents have said the park doesn't need more people and criticized the group for not talking with area residents first. Over 1,100 people gathered in Jasper in late October to hear speakers talk about the issue.
While definitions for what constitutes "tourism" vary, a person becomes a tourist whenever they spend a night away from their home, even if they do so in their own neighborhood, said David M. Pearlman, who is also the founding director of Arkansas State University's hospitality management program.
Of the 48.3 million total visitors to the Natural State last year, 16.9 million stayed overnight, according to Arkansas' economic impact report.
A person who travels over 50 miles one way is often considered a tourist as well, according to Pearlman.
"When I go to Memphis to shop at Ikea, I'm considered a tourist," he said.
As for why people go on such trips, Pearlman said they become tourists "for a gazillion reasons." One significant motivator is to reconnect with others. According to Pearlman, a third of all people travel to visit friends and family.
Nick E. Johnston, an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas's Hospitality Management Program in Fayetteville, pointed to recreation, nature, heritage and culture as other driving factors. Business travel, such as when a person visits another place for the purpose of making a sale or attending a conference, can also be considered a source of tourism, according to the professor.
Johnston added that tourism has been linked to better mental health.
"There's an argument that, on a global level, it leads to more empathy and less conflict," he said. "The more we travel, the more we experience other cultures, arguably the more empathetic we'll feel."
Pearlman highlighted the variety of economic benefits tourism brings, as well, which he said can have a multiplier effect.
"There's always going to be direct spending, and then that spending is going to go into wages and employment in that area," he said. That money can then be spent by those workers and their employers, further stimulating the local economy and offsetting residents' tax burdens. According to Arkansas' impact report, each household in the state would have to pay an additional $866 in taxes to replace the state and local taxes paid by visitors in 2022.
In addition, local residents can enjoy the benefits that come from beautification and infrastructure projects aimed at drawing more visitors, Pearlman said.
Johnston highlighted Hot Springs and Eureka Springs as places that rely heavily on -- and benefit from -- tourism. In Garland and Carroll counties, where the two cities are located, visitors spent $840.6 million and $330.2 million, respectively. Tourism in those counties employs 6,799 and 3,329 people, respectively. Business leaders in three rural counties, Sevier, Perry and Woodruff, say their communities saw a significant increase in visitor spending last year by emphasizing the qualities that set them apart.
Johnston said such messaging has "positively resonated" with those living inside and outside of the state.
The state has been effective in using available data to target specific markets, according to Pearlman.
Arkansas spent $7.95 million on tourism marketing in 2022, according to the state's economic impact report. A spring and summer campaign resulted in a return on investment of $82 for every dollar spent on marketing, the report states. Thomas, the new tourism director, was CJRW's account manager for Arkansas tourism before starting her current role.
One especially notable area of opportunity has been in the state's natural beauty.
In addition to Arkansas' 52 state parks and seven national parks, Pearlman noted the number of themed trails, such as the state's wine trail, and the explosion in cycling routes in Northwest Arkansas and elsewhere.
"We've really blown out that outdoor recreation market," he said. "That is something that's a big deal."
Suzzette Shaw Goldmon, an assistant professor and program coordinator for the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff's Hospitality and Tourism Management program, said fowl hunting is an activity the state is popularly known for.
"If I travel and mention Arkansas, people will mention certain things like duck hunting," she said.
Stuttgart and the Arkansas Delta are known across the nation for their waterfowl hunting grounds. The annual Wings Over the Prairie Festival brings tens of thousands of people to Stuttgart each year.
Goldmon said that, since coming to Arkansas during the pandemic, she has seen an increase in the state's efforts to advertise its natural assets. She's also observed companies doing extensive marketing for the state's casinos, as well as for dining and even agriculture.
"We're truly farm-to-table, always have been," she said. "But now we're just doing more marketing worldwide."
The experts also emphasized the diversity of Arkansas' historical and cultural attractions. Little Rock Central High School played a critical role in the Civil Rights Movement, for instance, while Bentonville is host to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. The state boasts numerous unique festivals as well, including the King Biscuit Blues Festival, which brings blues-lovers from across the globe to Helena-West Helena.
In late September, the New York Times published a travel story highlighting the culture of Mountain View, which it described as "utterly authentic."
"People are definitely wanting the real deal," Pearlman said.
While Parks, Heritage and Tourism Department spokeswoman Shealyn Sowers did not respond to a voicemail and email seeking comment on officials' strategies for drawing tourists to Arkansas, these successes are also being noticed by tourism officials outside the Natural State.
"I think that Arkansas and Texas do tremendous things with their state parks in their promotion," said Shelley Zumwalt, executive director for the Oklahoma Department of Tourism and Recreation.
Zumwalt said she sees Oklahoma as being in a position similar to where Arkansas was in the 1990s, offering diverse assets to potential tourists while also seeking a consistent funding stream. According to the director, her state is taking its own approach to promoting itself while learning from its neighbors.
"Oklahoma has a specific branding flavor, but we're taking notes on what Arkansas and Texas have done," she said.
The covid pandemic, the first case of which was observed in Arkansas in early 2020, severely disrupted tourism across the nation.
"Our industry went through a valley," Johnston said. Widespread layoffs followed, and employers are still struggling to bring back those workers now that tourism sales and activities have largely returned to pre-pandemic levels.
Pearlman said that, while much of the industry had to shut down overnight, the lockdowns associated with the pandemic drew attention to people's "deep-seated desire and need for hospitality."
"They're not really waiting anymore," he said. "They're just going for it."
Goldmon said Arkansas' vast recreational opportunities outdoors, where people could practice social distancing more easily, helped the state to recover quickly in terms of tourism. Arkansans in particular were reminded that they "don't have to travel 5,000" miles" when their home state already had plenty to offer.
Despite the state's bouncing back in tourism, the professors said there are areas in which Arkansas should improve, if it hopes to close the gaps with its neighbors in visitor spending. Each said the state can do more to encourage networking and collaboration between various levels of government and with hospitality groups.
Zumwalt, Oklahoma's tourism director, said her own state is working to strengthen its collaborative efforts.
Johnston cited as an effective example of collaboration in Arkansas, the Delta Dirt Distillery in Helena-West Helena and Origami Sake in Hot Springs, which reflect strong ties with local agriculture while simultaneously encouraging people to travel to their respective areas to visit. Such efforts should be increasingly supported through funding and infrastructure, he said.
Pearlman said he has been trying to resurrect a northeast Arkansas chapter of the state's Hospitality Association, though he added that the effort has been "a little slow."
However, Goldmon said that such collaboration, while important, isn't enough.
"I would like to bring people across the state together to talk about not only trends but how we can invest in and promote more the academic programs," she said.
Students in her university's hospitality program have left for other states in search of better jobs, rather than finding work in Arkansas. For instance, a similar program in South Carolina hosts internships that offer 10 paid weeks of "intense training on the job in five-star locations," she said. The graduates from that school go on to look for "top-of-the-line" places to work.
The present generation in college wants to have those opportunities to work in high-quality venues after graduation, Goldmon said. They aren't interested in starting at the bottom. To keep local students working in Arkansas' hospitality industry upon completion of their programs, they should be exposed to "the best experiences" and have chances to find meaningful work in those locations, she said.
Marilyn Bailey, interim chair for the university's human sciences department, said Goldmon has "worked tirelessly" to increase her students' opportunities for such experiential learning.
"Oftentimes, the funding to support travel expenses for students' experiential learning is non-existent," she wrote in an email on Friday.
Bailey also said the state should increase its efforts to promote diversity in tourism, as well as to support work to get underrepresented communities more involved in hunting, fishing and other recreational activities.
Goldmon said the state's tourism and hospitality programs could collaborate with programs in other states with an emphasis on "being prepared for the next five, 10, fifteen years to build upon what we have."