State of the State 2023: Tourism officials tout busy 2023, push for outdoor recreation

The new secretary of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism, Mike Mills, believes now is an exciting time for the department. The nearly 50-year veteran of the state’s tourism sector says the industry has recovered from the pandemic.

“As Arkansas State Parks celebrate their centennial, Arkansas’ tourism industry continues to thrive, increasing revenue steadily over the past 20 months,” said Mills, who was appointed to the cabinet post on Jan. 12.

Figures released by the department in September show Arkansas’ tourism industry had record visits in 2021 and rebounded from a significant decline in 2020 that resulted from the global COVID-19 pandemic. The state saw more than 41 million visitors in 2021, compared to 29.2 million in 2020 and 36.3 million in 2019. Lodging spending increased 49% after falling 29% in 2020. This recovery led to accommodation costs exceeding their 2019 level by 5%. The data was released during the Arkansas Hospitality Association’s annual convention in Little Rock.

Former Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism Secretary Stacey Hurst said Arkansas, known as the Natural State, plays a big role in the state’s tourism success.

“These numbers illustrate that Arkansas is in the midst of a turning point in public perception regarding our national profile as a tourism destination. Together, we can keep this momentum going strong as we head into 2023 and beyond,” Hurst said when the numbers were released.

The report notes that visitor spending, visitor-supported jobs and business sales generated $1.1 billion in tax revenue that supports local, state and federal government operations. State and local taxes alone topped $653 million in 2021. Arkansas national park visitation rose 23 percent over its pre-pandemic level in 2019 to just under four million visits, while hunting and fishing licenses issued to non-residents, have more than doubled compared to 2019.

The report also says tourism-supported jobs account for 5.6 percent of all jobs in Arkansas in 2021. Nearly one in four (23 percent) tourism jobs in Arkansas were lost in 2020. With the recovery of travel in 2021, tourism jobs have grown 95% from their pre-pandemic level.

Mike Mills, Secretary of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism

“Now is the time to unleash The Natural State’s potential to be a true leader in the tourism and outdoor recreation industry, sharing our rich heritage, natural beauty and welcoming people from around the world,” Mills said.

On Jan. 24, Gov. Sarah Sanders signed an executive order creating the State of the Natural Initiative and the State of the Natural Initiative Advisory Council, and said her husband, Brian, would lead the effort as a volunteer. The order says the council will advise the governor on promoting outdoor recreation and the outdoor economy.

The Department of Tourism is promoting tourism innovations in 2023. The Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts, formerly known as the Arkansas Arts Center, is slated for a long-awaited reopening on April 22. Work on the museum, which includes both a redesign and an extension, began in 2016 and completely transformed the museum building and grounds.

The state-of-the-art building, located at 501 E. Ninth St. in Little Rock, includes gallery space to house installations from the museum’s 14,000-piece collection, as well as temporary exhibits. Also at the museum are the Windgate Art School, an on-site theater and lecture hall, outdoor gathering spaces, a restaurant with outdoor dining, and more. Along with this, more than 11 acres of new landscaped areas surround the museum in historic MacArthur Park, including new walking trails.

Arkansas’ first sake brewery, Origami Sake in Hot Springs, is set to open early this year. The sake will be made in Hot Springs using the city’s thermal waters, and Arkansas rice from Isbell Farms in England will also be an ingredient in the sake, which is made from fermented rice.

“Outside of Japan, there is arguably no better place on earth than our home state to gather the essentials of great sake: rice and water. The distinctive lineage of our brew can be traced directly to the local geography of Arkansas that yields our premium ingredients. Arkansas grows rice coveted around the world and produces sparkling spring water from thousands of feet underground that is naturally filtered for great taste,” the brewery’s website states.

The Betty Hinshaw Bird Sanctuary opened to the public in the fall of 2022. Hinshaw donated 25 acres along Wildcat Creek near Tontitown to the Northwest Arkansas Land Trust (NWALT) to establish the sanctuary. NWALT restored the 25-acre area to native grasslands with native species of tall grasses and prairie wildflowers, the tourism department said in a news release. Special pollinator habitat provides food for birds, while native scrub thickets offer nesting sites and cover.

Along with birds, the sanctuary protects and supports hundreds of plant and animal species that depend on this type of habitat. There is a small parking lot and a mile long public trail that allows quiet walking access and bird watching opportunities for the community. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 70 bird species have been documented within a one-mile radius of the Betty Hinshaw Bird Sanctuary.

Southland Casino Racing in West Memphis now has a 20-story, 300-room hotel at the facility, as well as a new 113,000-square-foot casino complex featuring new and expanding dining options. The expansion project will eventually include a new covered parking garage with 1,250 spaces.

Paragould’s first trail system, the 8 Mile Creek Trail, opened in the summer of 2022. It includes urban biking, hiking and walking trails. The trail provides a safer route for biking, hiking and walking and will eventually connect most of the city’s parks, downtown and several public schools.

The U.S. Marshals Museum will open in the summer of 2023. Museum officials have not yet set an opening date. Construction of the roughly 53,000-square-foot U.S. Marshals Museum was completed — except for exhibits — in early 2020. The facility is on the Arkansas River near downtown Fort Smith. In January 2007, the United States Marshals Service selected Fort Smith as the site for the national museum.

Editor’s note: The State of the State series provides biannual reports on Arkansas’ key economic sectors. The series publishes early-year stories and July/August stories to provide a broad, mid-year update on the state’s economy. Lynnk here for the State of the State page and previous stories.

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