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Making it last: Clinton attention could boost winter tourism in Arkansas.

SOME VOTERS STAND IN line at the First Baptist Church on Rodney Parham Road to cast their choices in the 1992 general election.

Part of their conversation during the hour-and-a-half wait to vote turns to the recent negative hits the state has taken in the national press and the increased attention Arkansas is receiving as home to Gov. Bill Clinton.

One man remarks he's surprised to see out-of-state visitors taking pictures of buildings in downtown Little Rock. And it's not just the state Capitol or the Clinton-Gore headquarters that present photo opportunities.

"They're probably surprised to find we have buildings in Arkansas," he says.

"Or at least electricity in them, anyway," says another man.

The presidential election has given Arkansas a chance to dispel the backward stereotypes that for years have plagued the state. And the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism intends to capitalize on the opportunity -- right down to taking advantage of President George Bush's comment that Arkansas is "the lowest of the low" by enumerating the areas in which the state is No. 1.

"I'm sort of the spin doctor for our state right now, I guess, because of all of the allegations about our fine state," says Joe David Rice, tourism director for Parks & Tourism.

"I'm sort of tired of hearing |about~ an inferiority complex," says Rice. "Arkansas is not going to take a backseat to anybody."

Rice's devotion to the state actually has gotten him into a bit of trouble.

When Vice President Dan Quayle's wife, Marilyn, asked "Should the rest of the country look like Arkansas?" during the Republican National Convention at Houston in August, Rice responded. He took a day of personal leave from his state job and picketed in front of the state Capitol carrying a sign that read, "Yes, Marilyn. The rest of the country should look like Arkansas!"

Some Republican members of the state legislature didn't appreciate Rice's actions, but he was motivated by the devotion he has to his home state.

In a more conservative response to Bush, Rice sent letters to almost 60 newspapers outside the state and to every in-state paper refuting the president's comments.

He says the in-state letters were "to remind Arkansas we have a lot going for us."

Despite the negative attacks, Clinton's successful bid for the presidency put Arkansas on the map in a way the tourism department hasn't been able to in 20 years with more than $20 million, Rice says.

"Mr. Clinton in one night accomplished what we've been trying -- not always successfully -- to do all along," he says.

When Clinton closed the mid-July Democratic National Convention at New York by inviting people to "come on down" to Arkansas, they came.

Rice says that the next day the department was inundated with calls from people saying, "We're ready to come on down. How do we get there?"

Although much of the Clinton influence has been immeasurable, there have been some barometers to judge his effect.

For instance, inquiries into the state were up 28 percent in September.

According to collection reports revenues from the tourism tax are up 7 percent for the year. The department projects a 9.4 percent revenue growth in fiscal year 1993.

The 1992 budget is $5 million.

Tourism nationally has experienced a growth of 2-3 percent this year, statistics show.

Touring the State

It's one week after the Democratic National Convention at which Clinton invited visitors to the state, and three Houston residents in their mid-20s decide to take Clinton up on his offer.

"I thought, 'This guy could be president,'" says Hector Rodriguez, a 26-year-old law student. "I wanted to see where this guy lived, from humble beginnings to the White House."

Rodriguez and his companions followed a path from Clinton's birthplace in Hope to where he grew up in Hot Springs. Then, just for fun, they journeyed to the Ozark Mountains they'd heard so much about.

"My impression of Arkansas was dramatically changed," says Rodriguez. "All you ever see in the news is these little dirt towns and wooden houses with no paint on them and people sitting on the porch."

Instead, he found a very green state with several surprises.

For instance, he was shocked to see people in Hot Springs filling gallon jugs with water for free from the springs.

"We pay money for this stuff in Texas," says Rodriguez.

Don Raulie, executive director of the Hot Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau, says although the effect is immeasurable, there's no doubt Clinton's bid for the presidency has helped the city. And he doesn't think any negative comments are going to do permanent damage to the state.

"Everyone recognizes the bashing that's taken place is part of the political process," says Raulie.

The extra attention may help Hot Springs in its attempt to boost year-round tourism.

"We are on the verge of having an 11-month season," Raulie says.

He says that in the past, Hot Springs residents would characterize the city's tourism season as the time when the Oaklawn Park racetrack was open. Then, in more recent years, they might also include the summer months.

But now fall is becoming an important tourist time when the city attempts to market itself around certain events, such as Oktoberfest, and attract more mature travelers or couples who are traveling without children.

"You use these festivals as a hook to attract their attention," Raulie says. Citywide promotions will even be marketed around the upcoming Healthfest Weekend in Hot Springs Nov. 20-22.

Then, Holiday In The Park begins later this month and extends through New Year's Day. A calendar catalogues all the events of the holiday season in the city.

But then there's a drop in tourism and even a drop in the push for tourism in January.

"We haven't dealt with January yet," Raulie says.

The thoroughbred racing season at Oaklawn makes Hot Springs one of the top cities for winter tourism in Arkansas, but it doesn't start until Jan. 22. So that leaves about three weeks of downtime.

Still, Raulie says September was a "great" month for the city and October was "smashing." He doesn't yet have specific numbers but says, "I can tell by the gleam in hoteliers' eyes that things are better."

Raulie says, "Three to five years ago, that wasn't happening."

The Pinnacle

"We were the hungriest, so we started it," Bob Purvis, executive director of the Eureka Springs Chamber of Commerce, says of winter tourism business in Eureka Springs in northwest Arkansas.

It used to be, Purvis says, that after Nov. 1, "we just kind of locked the place up and went home." That worked years ago in the tourism industry, but with increased costs of business the season had to be extended.

Purvis says the city developed an attitude of "let's give people a reason to travel and spend money."

He says it wasn't the case of "which comes first, the chicken or the egg?"

"Business had to be open for others to come."

Seven years ago, the Christmas season was emphasized with a tour of homes. It took two or three years, but businesses began to stay open during the winter months. Five years ago, a Christmas lighting program was started.

Just this year, 2 1/2 miles of lights are being added for a total of almost five miles of lights in the city. The business is now there to support the increased efforts.

Incoming revenues for December tourism had stagnated between 1980-85 at around $240,000 while most of the other months showed increases every year for the past 20 years.

But by 1991, December revenues were up to more than $1.3 million.

Similarly, November increased from $650,000 in 1985 to $1.8 million in 1991.

January and February still are not prime tourism months. Purvis says that in the past there hasn't been much money devoted to promoting that time because of potential weather problems.

But after last year's mild winter that saw an increase in business -- there was a 66 percent jump in January business from 1991 to 1992 -- more advertising risks will be taken with January and February this year.

Purvis says bed-and-breakfast business has helped the mid-winter months.

"Bed-and-breakfasts have really changed January and February," says Purvis. He says tourists say, "OK, so we get snowed in -- fine. We're not going anywhere anyway."

Where hotels aren't always enough to draw people to a city, bed-and-breakfasts are. "They've added a new dimension to us as a destination," says Purvis.

Eureka Springs is flourishing more than any other city in Arkansas for winter tourism, and Purvis says although that's generated conversation in the state, no one is coming to him for advice on what they can do to spur winter tourism in their towns.

A New Interest

No one may be coming directly to Purvis for help, but there's an increased interest in developing winter tourism, and it's starting at the state level.

"They also recognize we're beyond a point where we just think about tourism in the summertime," says Don Raulie.

Just as winter tourist spots such as Aspen, Colo., are hustling to get summer business, Raulie says, Arkansas is working to make winter tourism in the state a better business.

"We think winter has some real opportunities for us," says Joe David Rice.

To prove it, the department is specifically devoting $445,000 to its fall and winter campaign, compared to last year's budget of $300,000 for fall and winter.

More than $100,000 of the $445,000 goes strictly to winter tourism advertisements.

The department wants to help the state develop untapped areas not just for winter tourism, but for the entire year.

For instance, Rice says, the route between Mount Ida and Mena has beautiful scenery "but has very few places to relieve the traveler of his or her money."

And what's called Eco-tourism, which is environmentally oriented tourism, is something else on which The Natural State can capitalize.

The new developments, particularly with an increased focus on the winter months, can only be helped with a Clinton presidency, say most people in the tourism industry.

"His 'come on down' invitation, I think, will extend over four years," says Purvis.

And to that, Purvis adds from his Eureka Springs locale, "Come on up."
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Author:Rengers, Carrie
Publication:Arkansas Business
Article Type:Industry Overview
Date:Nov 9, 1992
Words:1713
Previous Article:They came, they saw, they spent.
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