Hot Springs was on its way to a record year for visitors when the coronavirus shut things down in March of last year.
January and February numbers were up more than 17 percent from 2019 when the pandemic set in, based on the Spa City’s 3 percent hospitality tax collected on hotels and prepared food. But business as usual came to an abrupt halt on March 12, perhaps represented most symbolically in Arkansas by the cancellation of the state high school basketball championships being held at Hot Springs’ Bank OZK Arena.
Though tourism across the globe took an initial hit, especially in tourism towns like Hot Springs, the industry adjusted and is on the rebound heading into 2021, thanks in large part to outdoor recreation representing an almost $700 million component to the state tourism industry. And Hot Springs, nestled in the Ouachita Mountains in close proximity to several lakes, has benefited from its 2020 resurgence.
The early days of the shutdown, however, were tough on the city. Visit Hot Springs CEO Steve Arrison acknowledged that the “bottom fell out” in March once out-of-state travel was discouraged and restaurant dining was temporarily prohibited. Visitors numbers were down more than 50 percent in the first two months of the pandemic.
“We started our comeback in May with business slowly returning, due to the great job of our hotel and restaurant owners adapting to the new business model forced upon them by the pandemic,” Arrison said.
That comeback was rolling by the end of 2020. Tax collections were up three of the last four months heading into December, and year-to-date, the city was down “only” 12.4 percent.
“We have been very fortunate to have strong leisure business and a product in a location that people are searching for in these tough times,” Arrison said. “Our meeting business — conventions groups — on the other hand has been dismal. Our convention center and adjoining hotels have been severely impacted and continue to see very little business and cancellations of events and meetings into May…
“The only hope for our meetings business is to get the vaccine out as quickly as possible. This is true for all the meeting and event venues in our state.”
That includes Little Rock, which normally enjoys a brisk convention and meeting business. The city’s hotel occupancy numbers for the year were down 37 percent heading into December. For downtown alone, the impact has been more severe. Occupancy rates fell 37 percent year-to-date and were down 60 percent from March through November of 2020.
Statewide, revenue from the state’s 2 percent tourism tax fell 20.4 percent through November, with a summer high of $1.65 million collected in July and $1.53 million in August, according to data from the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism. For the 2021 fiscal year, monthly averages are down 58.4 percent.
Among the state’s usual tourism hot spots, only Carroll County saw an uptick in tourism tax collections in 2020. The home of Eureka Springs took in $600.3 million in tourism tax revenue, up 1.9 percent. Elsewhere, Pulaski County’s collections totaled $1.9 billion, down 35 percent; Garland County (home to Hot Springs) collected $1.1 billion, down 22.7 percent; Benton County’s 2020 totals were $978.9 million, down a 46.7 percent; and Washington County saw $650 million in tourism tax revenue, down 45.1 percent.
Broken down into regions, the numbers reflect the drops in Bentonville and Fayetteville collections. The Northwest Arkansas region took in $2.2 billion in tourism tax revenue from January through September 2020, a decrease of 38.2 percent. Arkansas Tourism defines the region as Benton, Carroll, Madison and Washington counties. The other significant decrease was felt in Little Rock and the Heart of Arkansas region (Faulkner, Lonoke, Prairie, Pulaski and Saline counties), which fell 32.3 percent to $2.4 billion.
Four of 12 regions experienced increases in collections, led by the Greers Ferry Lake/Little Red River region (Cleburne, Van Buren, White and Woodruff counties), up 17.3 percent at $385.7 million, and followed by the Ozark Gateway (Fulton, Independence, Izard, Jackson, Lawrence, Randolph, Sharp and Stone counties), up 13.7 percent at $323.5 million. The Ozark Mountain region (Baxter, Boone, Marion, Newton and Searcy counties) was up 13.5 percent at $800 million, and the Land of Legends region (Cleveland, Grant, Jefferson and Lincoln counties) was stable but just up at 0.5 percent at $224.8 million.
An outdoor rec resurgence is evident in the state’s August tourism tax revenues, which were down just 6.3 percent. Stacy Hurst, cabinet secretary for parks, heritage and tourism, told Arkansas Money & Politics that tourism numbers are holding up better than expected.
Bentonville has grown into an internationally recognized mountain-biking destination, which helped the city offset, if just a little, the loss of revenue from art museum visitors during the pandemic. November ridership on city trails doubled year-to-date, according to Visit Bentonville. In November 2019, Bentonville welcomed 54,578 riders to its trails. That number swelled to 110,768 this past November. And Visit Bentonville CEO Kalene Griffith said those numbers reflect more locals — up to 36 percent of all riders in 2020.
Another outlet for Arkansans suffering from cabin fever has been state parks, where 2020 visitation estimates through November were up more than 650,000 from 6.6 million to 7.3 million, an increase of 10.3 percent.
Joe Jacobs, manager of marketing and revenue for Arkansas State Parks, said the state was forced to start estimating a daily count in 2020 because of the increase in visitors and concerns over social distancing.