Tourism leader says rebound evident, touts expanding attractions

Stacy Hurst, Secretary of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism, has seen highs and lows in the industry she oversees. She couldn’t be happier with tourism industry’s rebound in a post-pandemic world. In 2021:

  • State parks set record visitation levels;
  • Visitor spending topped $8 billion, a 33% increase;
  • Tourism tax collections exceeded $1.1 billion; and
  • The hospitality industry recorded 64,144 jobs, up 23%

“I’m really not surprised. We saw a dip in our collections during 2020. It was anticipated. We did better than most of our surrounding states. So we knew going into the next year in 2021 that we were probably going to come back strong because people were flocking to Arkansas. I’ve said before, there’s never been a better time to be the Natural State. And we really saw that in 2021,” she said.

Hurst, who appeared on this week’s edition of Talk Business & Politics, said solid marketing helped with the 2021 rebound and she expects 2022 and 2023 to do even better.

“I think we’ve made really good decisions about our advertising and marketing. We pulled back, we didn’t invite people from other states early in the pandemic into Arkansas. We created a new message to invite people to enjoy the nature that Arkansas offers. And so that resonated with people. Our moniker really worked well during that time: the Natural State,” she said.

“Now, we’ve shifted. With the economy struggling, we shifted to Arkansas offers a great value. That’s where we’re focused now. We’re marketing outside of our traditional egg, and doing very well, drawing people outside of Arkansas into the Natural State. And of course, encouraging people that live in Arkansas to travel within the state,” Hurst added.

New attractions are always important for diversifying Arkansas’ tourism product. For in-state and out-of-state travelers, Hurst said two projects will be a tremendous boost for the state. One is the Cold War Museum in Blytheville that her department just made a hefty investment in.

“It’s a great project. When I was invited up there four years ago even, to take a look at it, I was convinced that that had the potential to be a really great museum, a great interactive, and educational opportunity for people my age who remember the Cold War,” she said.

Another project that will come back online in 2023 is the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts, formerly known as the Arkansas Arts Center.

“Arkansas is on the map now for art lovers because of Crystal Bridges. But with the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts now serving as an anchor in the central Arkansas area, we’re going to be able to market now to art lovers – not just in the country but internationally – to come to Arkansas and take in both of these outstanding museums. And I agree with you a 100%, it could be transformational in terms of our tourism,” she said.

On another hospitality note, nominations for the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame are open. Hurst said more than 1,000 nominations have already been received.

You can watch Hurst’s full interview in the video below.

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