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Tempting the tourists.

Arkansas' $3 Billion Tourist Industry Compares Favorably to Surrounding States

WHEN IT COMES TO tourism dollars in this region, only Texas and Louisiana have more to play with than Arkansas.

Four years ago, the Arkansas Legislature passed a 2 percent sales tax allowing the state Department of Parks and Tourism to go from operating on a budget of less than $3 million to almost $4.5 million.

Today, the budget stands at about $8 million and has a $3 billion economic impact.

Of the six states contiguous to Arkansas, only Texas and Louisiana have bigger budgets.

Meanwhile, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Missouri and Mississippi face either budget cuts or the task of stimulating their stagnant budgets, all of which are under $8 million annually.

However, crunching state tourism numbers results in something of an apples-and-oranges comparison.

For instance, Texas, by its very size, attracts more tourists than Arkansas.

Arkansas' largest neighbor recently surpassed Florida as the nation's second most popular destination state. Texas has averaged 139 million visitors per year. California is first with 242 million visitors, while Florida is third with 128 million visitors.

Texas' tourism budget is one of the country's largest. It operates with $11 million annually; 70 percent of that budget is earmarked for advertising, state tourism officials say.

"Our marketing campaign is paying off," says Michael Kardos, the print media coordinator for the Tourism Division of the Texas Department of Commerce.

Kardos says that although Texas always has offered diverse tourist options, from dude ranches in the west to metropolitan luxuries in Dallas, the state had trouble marketing itself.
Annual Tourism Budgets
(Arkansas vs. surrounding states)
Louisiana $14 million
Texas $11 million
Arkansas $8 million
Tennessee $7.6 million
Oklahoma $6.6 million
Missouri $5.5 million
Mississippi $1.6 million

"The vast size of Texas was a little intimidating," Kardos says of the state that is bigger than some major countries.

So in 1988, the state developed a campaign built around the slogan "Texas. It's Like A Whole Other Country."

In 1989, tourists' spending increased to $18 billion. By 1991, it was up to $21 billion.

Similarly, Louisiana's tourism industry is strong with an even larger budget -- $14 million annually -- than Texas. But with just 24 million visitors yearly to the state, compared with Texas' 139 million, tourism only generates $4.9 billion for the state.

Not that Louisiana is complaining.

Before the Louisiana Legislature passed a law three years ago that dedicates .03 percent of the state's sales tax to tourism, Louisiana's tourism budget hovered near $5 million.

With the new budget, the state is living up to its slogan "Louisiana! We're Really Cookin'."

And Sue Ellen Lewis, the director of public relations for Louisiana's Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, says Louisiana is even branching into new areas for tourism development.

"There is more and more emphasis on rural tourism and the rest of the state for a different kind of experience," Lewis says.

New Orleans is the state's biggest tourist destination, with 1 million visitors traveling there for Mardi Gras alone.

But now, Lewis says, "We're trying to give Arkansas a run for its money."

Lewis says that when it comes to outdoor tourism opportunities, "You guys do a good job."

A More Difficult Job

While the tourism industry in Texas and Louisiana is thriving and Arkansas is holding its own, the industry is more tenuous in the other states surrounding Arkansas.

Missouri, with a budget of $5.5 million, might be the best off. Although the budget has been static for several years, there is a bill before the Missouri Legislature seeking to give the Missouri Division of Tourism a portion of state sales tax increases generated from tourism revenue.

Even without the bill, the state is generating almost $8 billion from tourism.

Mississippi is on the verge of invigorating its tourism budget, which has remained unchanged at $1.67 million for several years. Although the state had 2.7 million visitors last year, it has had no money for paid promotions.

But that could change through legislation that would provide for $5 million a year for three years. The money would come out of state taxes from dockside casinos.

Mississippi's first casinos, on the Mississippi River at Tunica and on the Gulf Coast, opened in August 1992 and are expected to generate $24 million in taxes.

Travelers spend more than $1.6 billion annually in Mississippi, but that figure would grow exponentially if a new gaming tax bill passes.

Oklahoma and Tennessee may not have as much hope.

Although Oklahoma passed a tourism tax in 1987 allowing its tourism budget to jump from $500,000 to today's budget of $6.6 million, all state departments are facing possible budget cuts of 9 percent or more.

There also has been a hiring freeze, and the budget has remained static in the past few years.

Jim Buratti, the assistant director of Oklahoma's Travel and Tourism Division, says that although tax collections are down, the division is actually trying to double the money spent on tourism promotions.

The $2.4 million Oklahoma spends on tourism advertising is less than the $4 million spent by Arkansas. It is even less than the $4 million Missouri spends, and Missouri has a smaller overall budget than Oklahoma.

Buratti says a danger exists that the division could be eliminated altogether, although its dismantling has been threatened before but not enacted.

Tennessee's budget of $7.6 million is down from a high of $10.9 million in 1986 and '87. Only $1.9 million is being spent on advertising.

Although the number of travelers to Tennessee increased from 40.3 million in 1990 to 42.2 million in '91, that is still less than the 46.5 million visitors the state had in 1989.

The economic impact of tourism on the state is $6 billion, but that number could be higher if the state had more to spend on tourism.

Tennessee's most popular attractions still are thriving. Nashville alone sees 15.8 million visitors a year, including 1.9 million at Opryland, a theme park.

Memphis is the second-largest destination city with 9.8 million visitors. Graceland, the late Elvis Presley's home, is a top attraction there with 600,000 visitors annually. But Dolly Parton's Dollywood at Pigeon Forge, in eastern Tennessee, attracts more tourists with 1.8 million visitors.

Missouri may be receiving the most free advertising, thanks to the emergence of Branson as the new home of country music stars. Branson, in southern Missouri, had 5 million visitors last year, a 15 percent increase from 1991. The number most likely will rise again this year.

For instance, while 500 motor coaches came to the city last year, 5,000 are already booked for 1993.

Mississippi does not have a new boomtown like Branson, but the Natchez Trace Parkway steadily brings in almost 10 million visitors annually.

The Gulf Islands National Seashore brings in another 1.4 million.

While Dallas and New Orleans continue to be the hot tourism spots for Texas and Louisiana, the states are diversifying to bring in even more visitors.

Among its many attractions, Arkansas continues to market the most popular destinations: the Ozarks, Hot Springs and the Little Rock-North Little Rock areas.

So, even as neighboring states fight for bigger tourism budgets, Arkansas is making sure it holds on to its share of the tourism dollar.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Arkansas' tourism industry
Author:Rengers, Carrie
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Mar 15, 1993
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