As was virtually every other industry, tourism in Arkansas was greatly impacted when the pandemic emerged onto the national scene in March. But because outdoor recreation is such a significant component to the industry in Arkansas, Natural State tourism didn’t take nearly as big a hit as expected in 2020.
Stacy Hurst, cabinet secretary for the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism, is optimistic for the future of tourism in Arkansas and the new avenues that may have opened up for it over the past year.
AMP: Overall, how did Arkansas tourism weather the storm in 2020?
HURST: I’d describe it as better than expected. We’re down about 25 percent, which is a stark contrast to our robust growth prior to COVID-19. Tourism in Arkansas has grown every year for the past 10 years, and we were on pace to hit record growth. Our models included a decline of as much as 60 percent, so a decline of 25 percent is better than we feared.
AMP: Was the state able to maintain its outdoor recreation momentum throughout 2020, particularly in terms of biking?
HURST: Absolutely. The opportunities for outdoor recreation and simply being outside in nature have been a boon for Arkansas during COVID-19. Our Arkansas state parks, our federal lands and national parks have all seen robust visitation. Overnight opportunities including cabins and camping are in high demand. With our new trails and with old favorites, hiking and biking have been popular.
AMP: Where are some areas, maybe not yet realized, in which the state could expand its tourism footprint?
HURST: We’re completely optimistic about the future of Arkansas tourism. We have great partners across the state, and we’re constantly brainstorming and working to support great ideas. With Crystal Bridges, the new Momentary and the reimagined Arkansas Arts Center, we have a huge opportunity to expand our appeal as an arts destination. Cities across Arkansas are realizing the value of murals and public art. I think it’s a tourism angle that, if properly promoted, will produce increased visitation and growth.
AMP: How did your employees adapt to the pandemic and the procedural changes it brought on?
HURST: The pandemic brought huge change to the inner workings of the tourism industry. Our Arkansas Tourism staff and direct partners adapted quickly, shifting to remote work and tweaking advertising to accommodate a “Safe Travel” message. Trade shows and travel-related conferences were canceled or moved to virtual, so business as usual came to a halt. Nevertheless, our team managed to deploy an effective message that encouraged visitors and residents to enjoy our abundant outdoor resources safely.
Our travel centers closed briefly, but opened safely to visitors in May, and our team of professionals continued to promote Arkansas as an attractive and safe destination.
AMP: Are there any areas of Arkansas tourism that might see an increase in 2021?
HURST: I predict we’ll continue to see robust use of our amazing natural resources. We’re seeing increased visitation from our abutting states, especially Texas. With the lingering effects of COVID-19, we’ll continue to see visitors take advantage of our outdoor opportunities like incredible new biking and hiking trails, world-class fly fishing and backcountry aviation.
We’re fortunate to have a temperate climate in our state, and we can engage in outdoor recreation all year. Once people spend some time enjoying Arkansas, they have a favorable impression and want to come back.