LITTLE ROCK – As the Arkansas tourism industry recovers from the economic impacts of the pandemic, the governor announced the creation of a new Office of Outdoor Recreation.
It will be in the state Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism, and over the summer the department will hire a director for the office to coordinate and promote stewardship of the outdoors in Arkansas.
A 10-member advisory board will oversee the office. Members include private sector representatives. For example, the first four members represent a resort on Lake Ouachita, an outfitter on the Buffalo River, a boat manufacturer in Monticello and a duck hunting lodge in Arkansas County.
Traditionally, the Arkansas tourism industry has relied heavily on outdoor recreational activities such as camping, boating, hiking, hunting and fishing. That led to the designation of the state motto as the “Natural State.”
In recent years the state’s marketing efforts have promoted alternative activities and destinations, in order to expand and diversify the industry’s appeal. Marketing campaigns have targeted birdwatchers, motorcycle clubs and Civil War enthusiasts.
Other campaigns promote music festivals for fans of blues and bluegrass. Others have been aimed at connoisseurs of art and fine dining, to make tourists aware of the art galleries and restaurants in Arkansas.
Recent marketing campaigns also focus on specific destinations such as race tracks, casinos, water parks and the presidential library in Little Rock.
Therefore, creating a new Office of Outdoor Recreation is “getting back to the basics” in Arkansas tourism promotion.
According to the governor’s office, outdoor recreation accounts for almost $10 billion in the Arkansas economy. It supports 96,000 jobs and generates $698 million a year in local and state tax revenue.
The tourism and hospitality industry was especially hard hit by the pandemic, because of public health restrictions that limited seating at restaurants and prohibited public gatherings like music concerts.
That’s why last year the state awarded $48 million in grants specifically to hospitality businesses that were negatively affected by health restrictions.
They were call Business Interruption Grants and they went to more than 2,100 business. They were awarded by the Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism, the Arkansas Economic Commission and the Department of Finance and Administration.
News of the Office of Outdoor Recreation coincided with the announcement that the state had acquired Blue Mountain, a 459-acre parcel in central Arkansas. Also, the state signed an agreement with the U.S. Forest Service to allow more amenities for visitors at the Lake Sylvia Recreation Area, also in central Arkansas.
Blue Mountain is near Pinnacle Mountain, already within a state park. Rattlesnake Ridge was designated as a natural area in 2018 and in spite of its name is seeing an increase in visitors.
The Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission and The Nature Conservancy bought Blue Mountain for about $5 million from a timber company.
The Nature Conservancy raised about $1 million of the purchase price and has plans to raise an additional $1 million for building trails and a parking lot, and to help with maintenance.