Three counties in rural Arkansas – Sevier in the southwest; Perry, northwest of Little Rock; and Woodruff in the Delta — were among the five with the highest percentage change in visitor spending from 2021 to 2022.
The counties saw year-over-year gains of 21.4 percent, 21.7 percent and 27.4 percent in lodging, transportation, food and beverage, retail and recreation spending, respectively, according to the State of Arkansas Tourism Economic Impact Report for 2022 Tourist Office and Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism.
The very small sizes of the counties’ tourism economies contextualize these increases, as total visitor spending in 2022 was among the lowest of any county in the state: $19.2 million in Sevier, $9.8 million in Perry, and 5 million dollars in Woodruff. Compared even to rural areas with deeply established tourism economies, hospitality infrastructure in these counties is limited.
More than 48 million people visited Arkansas in 2022, a 17.1% increase over 2021, including 34.5 million leisure tourists. Visitor spending in 2022, $9.2 billion, is up 15.4% from 2021. Total visitation and the overall tourism economy are larger than they were before the pandemic. For 2022, visitor spending in Pulaski, Benton and Washington counties, where visitors spend the most money, was about $3.283 billion.
The hired consultancy, Tourism Economics, calculated by modeling the flow of visitor-related spending through the local economy and the effect they have on employment, wages and taxes, compared with employment and wage data. “Visitors” are anyone who has stayed overnight or traveled more than 50 miles into the county.
Local business leaders in the three rural counties say the massive growth in the outdoor economy that began during the covid-19 pandemic is reaching their smaller counties years after the surge began. They attract visitors and their dollars, they said, by highlighting their best and unique qualities.
SEVIER COUNTY: MEXICAN FOOD, FISHING AND BOATING
After decades of Latinos immigrating there to work at the Pilgrim’s Pride chicken processing plant, 58% of De Queen’s population is Hispanic, according to the last count. It has become a regional tourist attraction for its vibrant Mexican culinary offerings, said Suzanne Babb, head of the county chamber of commerce.
From her job at Cossatot Community College at the University of Arkansas, Erica Buenrostro plans De Queen’s Fiesta Fest each May.
“The tagline is ‘celebrating the cultures of southwest Arkansas,'” she said, noting the representation of the region’s Marshallese, American Indian and black residents in addition to Hispanics. About 2,000 people visit throughout the day.
Beyond that, De Queen, population about 6,000, has more than a dozen Mexican eateries: restaurants serve mostly Tex-Mex food, while food trucks serve more authentic Mexican food. Lonchera JB was the first to open in 2005, serving Mexico City-style tacos.
Sevier County now has a brand touting it as a place “where rivers and culture come together.” The county is rich in lakes and waterways; its southeast corner extends into the 29,260-acre Millwood Lake. Miles of multi-use trails around De Queen Lake attract cyclists and hikers, with more miles planned. The Tri-Lakes Big Bass Festival draws hundreds of participants from the Ark-La-Tex region, and campgrounds maintained by the US Army Corps of Engineers are located along the lakes.
Babb and her husband rent out vacation properties. In their reviews, guests say how green the countryside is and how much they like these waterways.
“When covid hit, we were booked all the time,” Babb said. “A lot of them came from Texas; they were fleeing the larger cities. They wanted to leave. And I think during that time we got on their radar as an outdoor place to come and escape the crowds and enjoy the natural resources that we have here.”
PERRY COUNTY: LAKE SYLVIA UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT, FARM STORE AND CENTRAL ARKANSAS PROXIMITY
Donnie Crane heads the Morrilton Chamber of Commerce. Asked about the recent growth in tourism in Perry County, he noted the growth of the Arkansas Goat Festival, which is just what it sounds like and regularly draws more than 8,000 visitors. He also points to the recent ownership of the Lake Sylvia Recreation Area by the Arkansas State Park by the US Forest Service.
“It used to be associated with the Ouachita National Forest,” he said. “It’s now a state park recreation area and we’ve seen a lot of improvements and increased visitation based on that.”
Until recently, Perry County wasn’t a traditional destination for activities like camping and fishing, but due in part to its central location, Crain said tourists now come from northern Louisiana, northeastern Oklahoma, Mississippi, Memphis and eastern Arkansas.
Crain and his wife bought the Hollis Country Store on Arkansas 7 — which opened in 1930 and is known for its fried bologna sandwiches — in late 2020 and moved back to the Natural State. They are the fourth generation of his family to own it. Crain said many county residents are doing as he and his wife are doing: developing sideline hospitality businesses to supplement their main careers, such as renting vacation properties on Harris Break Lake.
“We don’t necessarily have a lot of people working full-time, but when you look at the part-time equivalents and the impact of tourism on the larger community, you see more and more people being positively impacted by it,” said he.
WOODRUFF COUNTY: HUNTING, THE OUTDOORS AND PUMPKINS
Arkansas’ positioning under the Mississippi Flyway has long been a boon to duck hunters. They are increasingly coming to Woodruff County, the state’s second-smallest, from and outside Arkansas, local officials say.
McCrory Chamber of Commerce President Betty Kate Thompson noted the county’s access to the White and Cache rivers and Bayou De View, which have good duck and deer hunting spots. With duck hunting season less than a month away, Thompson said he’s seeing more out-of-state licensed vehicles on the road and strangers at the grocery store.
“Now we’re really making people sit up and take notice of our area and what we have to offer,” she said.
Circuit Judge Michael John Gray, a former state legislator, recently formed a county economic development commission and the county now has an economic development director. A tourism campaign is in the planning stage.
Beyond hunting, Gray said Woodruff County is an inexpensive place to do business and visit. Federal investments in broadband infrastructure have reached certain parts of the county. He compared the Cache River, an upstream canoeing destination through cypress and tupelo trees, to the Amazon and noted the White River’s fishing opportunities.
“We’re not seeing growth in one-time tourism dollars,” he said. “They don’t just come for the season.” Out-of-towners are increasingly buying up hunting properties and building clubs, as half-million-dollar vacation homes now dot the farmland south of Augusta.
While he suggested there are opportunities for small businesses in lodging and kayak and canoe rentals, Gray wants to see more public-private investment, noting that much of the investment so far (ie vacation homes) has come from private sources, but that the county, with its small population, does not have the capital to build up much on its own. It works with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission to improve camping opportunities at wildlife refuges during the off-season. He also proposed creating an exchange to connect hunters, wildlife and bird watchers and other outdoor enthusiasts with published outdoor recreation guides, local landowners and cabin owners.
“We have Woodruff County Economic Development funds available to help and will help connect potential businesses with other sources of revenue. All of these are currently being discussed by our economic development committee,” he said.
“We’re an agricultural county, so land is what we have, and tourism is our industry of the future. It’s going to be hard to convince someone to abandon a big smokestack factory in the state’s second most populous county, but it won’t be hard to convince them how beautiful it is.”
Aside from the farmers who lease their land to duck clubs during the hunting season when their fields are fallow, the county’s big rural tourism attraction is the Peebles Farm Pumpkin Patch and Corn Maze, which began about 20 years ago when Dallas Peebles took decision that row – growing 5,000 acres of cotton, soybeans, corn and wheat “just wasn’t worth it.”
Peebles said it took seven years to transition to growing vegetables wholesale and then to a pumpkin patch. It was hard work, and it still is, as the crops have to be planted over a period of time so that they ripen throughout the tourist season. Tourists want to see something new every season, which means there is always a new project to work on. It is difficult to find workers among the county’s small population, which he says cannot support the rural tourism industry alone. Broadband Internet is not yet fully extended there.
“You have to be where you can draw from here because there aren’t enough people here,” he said. “I really don’t know what else would work here. … There are a lot of different things that can be done in the county, but you have to have stamina.”
In an interview, Sandy DeCoursey, president of the Arkansas Agritourism Association, said her organization plans an annual conference to connect farmers with industry resources, as well as lunch and training via Zoom. Topics include insuring agritourism businesses and working with a casual workforce.
“Agritourism insurance is a bit different from other brands of insurance because it covers both farming and liability for our guests. It’s something we try to introduce and hold workshops quite often,” she said. “We will point them in the right direction. We will offer resources. But we, as an organization, do not teach these things. It’s finding and gathering information that we can share with our members and trying to keep a pulse on what they’re interested in and what needs they have where we can help.”
DeCoursey said agritourism is growing in Arkansas: “I think more and more farmers are realizing that just by adding a culinary aspect to their operation, they can significantly increase their income and also sustain their operation in the off-season.”