Rural Arkansas counties finding tourism niche

Streams, lakes, campgrounds, farms are among areas prompting growth

Submitted photo of Hollis Country Store, Hollis, Arkansas - September 30, 2023. Photo by Melissa Crain.
Submitted photo of Hollis Country Store, Hollis, Arkansas - September 30, 2023. Photo by Melissa Crain.


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 gains of 21.4%, 21.7% and 27.4%, respectively, in spending on lodging, transportation, food and beverage, retail and recreation year-over-year, per the 2022 report on the economic impact of tourism from the Arkansas State Tourism office and Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism.

The very small sizes of the counties' tourism economies contextualize those increases, as total 2022 visitor spending ranked among the lowest of all counties in the state: $19.2 million in Sevier, $9.8 million in Perry and $5 million in Woodruff. Compared even to rural areas with deeply established tourism economies, hospitality infrastructure in those counties is limited.

More than 48 million people visited Arkansas in 2022, a 17.1% increase over 2021, including 34.5 million leisure travelers. Visitor spending in 2022, $9.2 billion, increased 15.4% over 2021. Total visitation and the tourism economy at large are both bigger than they were before the pandemic. For 2022, visitor spending in Pulaski, Benton and Washington counties, where visitors spend the most money, was around $3.283 billion.

The hired consultancy, Tourism Economics, figured by modeling the flow of visitor-related expenditures through a local economy and the effect they have on employment, wages and taxes, cross-checked with employment and wage data. "Visitors" were anyone who stayed in overnight accommodations or traveled more than 50 miles to 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 are attracting visitors, and their dollars, they said, by highlighting their best and unique qualities.

SEVIER COUNTY: MEXICAN FOOD, FISHING AND BOATING

After decades of Hispanics immigrating there to work in its Pilgrim's Pride chicken processing plant, 58% of De Queen's population is Hispanic, per the last census. It's 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 the Cossatot Community College of the University of Arkansas, Erika Buenrrostro plans De Queen's Fiesta Fest every May.

"The tagline is 'celebrating the cultures of southwest Arkansas,'" she said, noting the representation of the region's Marshallese population, American Indians and Black residents there in addition to Hispanics. Around 2,000 people visit throughout the daylong event.

Beyond that, De Queen, population around 6,000, has more than a dozen Mexican eateries: restaurants mostly serve Tex-Mex while food trucks serve more authentic Mexican food. Lonchera J.B. was the first to open, in 2005, serving Mexico City-style tacos.

Sevier County now has a brand marketing it as a place "where creeks and culture unite." The county is rich in lakes and waterways; its southeastern corner extends into the 29,260-acre Millwood Lake. Miles of multi-use trails around De Queen Lake attract bicyclers and hikers, with more miles planned. The Tri-Lakes Big Bass Festival draws hundreds of entries from the Ark-La-Tex region, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-maintained campgrounds line the lakes.

Babb and her husband rent out vacation properties. Guests say how green the countryside is and how much they enjoyed those waterways in their reviews.

"When covid hit, we stayed booked constantly," Babb said. "A lot of them were coming up from Texas; they were escaping the larger cities. They wanted out. And I think it was during that time that we got on their radar as an outdoor place to come, to get away from crowds and to enjoy the natural resources that we have here."

PERRY COUNTY: LAKE SYLVIA UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT, A COUNTRY STORE AND CENTRAL ARKANSAS PROXIMITY

Donnie Crain heads the Morrilton Area Chamber of Commerce. Asked about Perry County's recent growth in tourism, he noted the growth of Arkansas Goat Festival, which is exactly what it sounds like and regularly attracts more than 8,000 visitors. He also points to the Arkansas State Park's recent possession of the Lake Sylvia Recreation Area from the U.S. Forest Service.

"Previously it was associated with the Ouachita National Forest," he said. "Now it's a state park recreation area, and we've seen a lot of improvements and increased visitation based upon that."

Until recently, Perry County had not been a traditional destination for activities like camping and fishing, but, in part because of its central location, Crain said tourists are now coming 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 -- late in 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: cultivating side-hustles in hospitality enterprises to supplement their main careers, such as renting vacation properties on Harris Brake Lake.

"We don't necessarily have a whole lot of people who are working full time, but when you look at part-time equivalents and the impact of tourism on the larger community, you're seeing more and more folks who are being positively impacted by that," he said.

WOODRUFF COUNTY: HUNTING, OPEN SPACE AND A PUMPKIN PATCH

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 within and outside of 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 all have good duck and deer hunting spots. With less than a month to go before duck hunting season begins, Thompson said she is seeing more out-of-state licensed cars on the road and strangers in the grocery store.

"We're just now really getting people to sit up and take notice of our area and what we have to offer," she said.

County 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 stages.

Beyond hunting, Gray said Woodruff County is a cheap place to do business and visit. Federal investment in broadband internet infrastructure have reached certain parts of the county. He compared the Cache River, an ascendant canoeing destination through cypress and tupelo trees, to the Amazon, and noted fishing opportunities on the White River.

"We're not seeing an uptick in one-off tourism dollars," he said. "They're not just coming for the season." Out-of-towners are increasingly buying up hunting properties and building clubhouses, with half-million-dollar vacation homes now scattering the farmland south of Augusta.

While he suggested that small businesses opportunities exist in lodging and in renting out kayaks and canoes, Gray wants to see more public-private investment, noting that much of the investment thus far (i.e., the vacation homes) has come from private sources but that the county, with its small population, doesn't have the capital to build much up by itself. He's working with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission to enhance camping opportunities at wildlife refuges during the off-season. He also suggested creating an exchange to connect hunters, wildlife- and bird-watchers, and other outdoor enthusiasts to published outdoor recreation guides, local landowners and lodge owners.

"We have Woodruff County economic development funds available to help assist and would help connect potential business to other sources of revenue. All of those are currently being discussed by our economic development commission," 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 drop a big smokestack factory in the second-smallest population county in the state, but it's not going to be hard to convince them how beautiful this is."

Aside from farmers leasing their lands to duck clubs over the hunting season, when their fields are fallow, the county's big agri-tourism attraction is Peebles Farm Pumpkin Patch and Corn Maze, which started around 20 years ago when Dallas Peebles made the decision that row-farming 5,000 acres of cotton, soybeans, corn and wheat "just wasn't paying off."

Peebles said it took seven years to transition to wholesale vegetable farming and then into a pumpkin patch. That was hard work, and it's still hard work, as crops have to be planted over a period of time so as to be ripening throughout the tourism season. Tourists want to see something new every season, which means there is always a new project to work on. It's hard to find workers within the county's small population, which he said cannot support an agri-tourism industry alone. Broadband internet has yet to be fully expanded there.

"You've got to be where you can draw from here, because there's not enough people here," he said. "I really don't know what else would work here. ... There's a lot of different things that could be done in the county, but you have to have staying power."

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-learns over Zoom. Topics include insuring agritourism businesses and handling an episodic workforce.

"Insurance for agritourism is a little bit different than the other brand of insurance, because it covers both farming and liability for our guests. That's something that we try to bring in and have seminars on fairly frequently," she said. "We'll point them in the right direction. We'll offer resources. But we don't, as an organization, teach those things. It's finding and aggregating information that we can disseminate to our members, and we try 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 just by adding a culinary aspect to their operation, they can greatly advance their revenue and also sustain operations beyond the season."