Richard Davies gestures as he addresses Crossett Rotarians June 26 at First Methodist Church. (Tom White/News Observer)
Arkansas’ state parks and tourism industry not only provide recreation for state and outside residents, but they pump a considerable amount of money into the state’s economy, according to Richard Davies, executive director of the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism.
Davies discussed the important role played by tourism and the state’s parks to Crossett Rotary Club members June 26 at the First Methodist Church of Crossett.
Davies argued that the first national park in the U.S. is not Yosemite, as is widely reported and in the history books, but actually Hot Springs.
“(President) Andrew Jackson set aside Hot Springs as a federal reservation, 60 years before Yosemite,” he said. “He just didn’t call it a national park, he called it a federal reservation.”
Davies said the number of parks in Arkansas grew considerably after the 1921 national conference of state parks, with Petit Jean officially designated as the first state park.
Problems grew over the years, however, as the number of state parks multiplied, but not the resources to care for them, according to Davies.
He said the 1996 conservation amendment “has helped us take care of things that had been broken since the 1940s.”
Davies said Arkansas’ 52 state parks offer a variety of features for local residents and tourists to enjoy, from the Ozark Folk Center to the Crater of Diamonds.
As for the latter, he said the discovery of five diamonds each over one carat in one year boosted revenue at that facility by $1 million.
Tourism in Arkansas, Davies said, “means money and it means jobs,” adding that the tourism industry generated $5.9 billion last year.
He said the state’s 23 million visitors have helped to create 100,000 tourism-related jobs and produced $425 million in taxes.
And that has also served to benefit Ashley County, Davies said, as the county had 119,000 visitors last year, serving to help create 314 jobs in tourism-related fields.
Davies said 85 percent of Arkansas’ tourists come from what he called “the egg,” an area that extends from Illinois and Indiana to Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana.
“We’re the big pretty hole in the doughnut,” he said.
Davies added that the top reason given by tourists for visiting Arkansas is the state’s beauty.
“The number one reason is they think we’re pretty,” he said. “They think we’re a pretty state. And, for us, the Natural State isn’t just a name.”