I remember this incident as if it occurred last week rather than decades ago. It happened during my first season as an outfitter on the Buffalo River. Our business was on US 65 north of Marshall.
One beautiful spring morning, a couple from Louisiana appeared in our storefront, eager to go canoeing. Once we’d completed the paperwork, we headed to Woolum, our put-in point. As we drove across the US 65 bridge over the Buffalo, I mentioned that they’d float under this spot in a few hours before arriving at Gilbert, the take-out point.
When we got to Woolum, water conditions were ideal. In fact, the shoals at the put-in were so noisy that conversation was difficult. I placed their canoe at the water’s edge and gave them paddles and PFDs. The couple climbed into the boat, the man in the stern and his wife in the bow.
I put my hands on the canoe, set to shove them into the current. I was surprised when the man cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted, “Which way do we go?”
I grinned, pointed to the left, and pushed them into the water, waving as they floated off.
When I picked the couple up hours later at Gilbert, they’d fallen in love with Arkansas.
But I’ll never forget that man’s question: Which way do we go?
Maybe it’s something Arkansas’s tourism industry leaders need to ask themselves each day.
* * *
It’s true. We have many advantages in The Natural State—with more to come:
• An expansion is underway at Bentonville’s Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
• Our state park system is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.
• The Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts will soon unveil a new facility in Little Rock.
• While plans aren’t public, it appears the old Dogpatch theme park near Jasper will become an environmental showplace.
• Gaming in Hot Springs, West Memphis, and Pine Bluff seems to be thriving.
• Arkansas’s restaurant, brewery, and distillery scene is booming.
• Southeast Arkansas’ Delta Heritage Trail is gaining steam.
• Fort Smith’ U.S. Marshals Museum will open in 2023.
• Arkansas has built an impressive network of mountain bike trails.
• El Dorado’s South Arkansas Arts Center, is expanding and Fayetteville’s TheatreSquared has a new home.
• The Arkansas Nature Conservancy has added Blue Mountain and Rattlesnake Ridge to its list of protected places.
* * *
Yet, that question remains: Which way will we go when it comes to Arkansas tourism?
We have federal recreational facilities across Arkansas that wearing out. Our congressional delegation must make certain funds are available to operate and maintain these investments.
Destinations along the Buffalo River — such as Whitaker Point, Lost Valley, and Steel Creek — are overwhelmed by crowds at times. We must ensure these sites don’t lose their charm and identity. And, of course, Arkansas legislators must take action to prevent another commercial hog farm within the Buffalo River’s watershed.
Northwest Arkansas will double its population within the next 25 years. Planners must think about housing, education, and transportation — and also recreation and open space.
The Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage & Tourism has done a fine job promoting the state and its distinctive regions. Yet it has accumulated a large advertising surplus, dollars that could be appropriated to encourage visitors to explore lesser-known areas.
Likewise, the state parks division has done commendable work, reducing its backlog of deferred capital improvement projects. But with Arkansas’s population growth and the demand for recreation, thought must be given to expanding the system. We haven’t had a new state park since Mount Magazine opened in 2001, an undertaking that required decades of effort.
Finally, I’ll suggest if Arkansas is serious about “The Natural State” slogan, the tourism industry must become pro-active on environmental issues. Let’s consider the magnificent maple trees lining Fayetteville’s streets. People unknown to us planted those trees decades ago, but years later everyone enjoys them. Perhaps the industry, in collaboration with the Arkansas Forestry Commission, could mount a statewide tree-planting campaign that would not only bring folks together for a common cause but would also pay dividends for future generations.
* * *
Arkansas’ tourism industry can point to a long list of accomplishments. Visitation counts and tax receipts are at all-time highs. But if Arkansas is to continue advancing, we must ask ourselves that big question: Which way do we go?
Otherwise, The Natural State could end up killing the goose that laid the golden egg.
READ ALSO: Spotlight on Small Business: Alejandro Gutierrez, Owner of Tacos Godoy