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Official says tourism returns to prepandemic numbers in Arkansas, discusses plans for future

by Monica Brich | September 24, 2022 at 5:28 a.m.
Marty Golofski (right), a volunteer docent, leads a group tour on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022, during fee free day at the Fort Smith National Historic Site in downtown Fort Smith. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Hank Layton)

FORT SMITH -- State tourism numbers have rebounded from the pandemic, according to the director of Arkansas Tourism.

Travis Napper met with Fort Smith's Advertising and Promotions Commission on Thursday to discuss the economic impact of 2021 and what's being done to improve tourism across the state. He said the overall theme is The Future is Bright for Arkansas.

Napper said almost 90% of Arkansas Tourism money comes from the 2% lodging tax, which has been surpassing the record high each quarter this year. He said the past five or six consecutive months' collections have been record highs for that month, with June being the best month ever for collection.

Napper said overall collections benefit local tourism and lodging and vice versa. He said tourism's new normal is at a faster pace than it was before covid-19.

Tourism spending has returned to about $8 million, a 33% increase compared to 2020, and visitor volume increased 41%. Hot Springs National Park is among the nation's top 40 most visited parks, Napper said.

One number that's still lower compared to 2019 is hospitality and tourism employment rates, which are 5% lower than 2019 but 23% more than in 2020.

"Despite being down 5% in the number of jobs that we're creating, we were up a little over 1% on the payroll tied to those jobs," Napper said. "When we're talking about recruitment or retention of those kind of jobs going forward, one of the biggest things has always been the wage level is low. So the fact that we've recovered on payroll but we haven't recovered on the amount of people, that's a good sign, which hopefully will improve our ability to keep people in these jobs going forward."

Napper said Arkansas Tourism received a grant from the Economic Development Administration to create a plan to see how state tourism can operate better and what to be looking at for the future.

Tim Jacobsen, executive director of the Fort Smith Arkansas Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the city is hosting a meeting for the new plan from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. Thursday at the convention center mainly to discuss travel and tourism. The bureau is also working in collaboration with the state to bring bloggers, travel writers and influencers to the River Valley to share area tourism opportunities with their followers, he said.

Arkansas Tourism is working with destination analysts on software personal identification, which is a survey for potential and existing travelers in order to categorize them based on interests to better market to those interests, as well as see what areas could be improved, Napper said.

"So you might have your family travelers, adventure travelers, RV travelers, park-goers, history lovers, foodies, whatever those may be, and through this survey you'll learn what resonates most and best with those about what we have to offer in Arkansas," Napper said.

"I believe our residents come first, in that what we produce is good for our residents as far as that tax, but also the quality of life. The things that bring visitors here are the same things that our locals like to participate in and experience and do."

Print Headline: Arkansas tourism numbers rebound


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