Earlier this week, I attended the Governor's Conference on Tourism in Springdale. I had the chance to talk about the growing strength and importance of our state's tourism industry.
At the conference, Tom Walton, the grandson of Walmart founder Sam Walton, was named "Tourism Person of the Year," primarily for his work in making Arkansas a premier destination for mountain bikers. Tom has traveled the nation and beyond. And yet, like many of us who've seen the world, there remains a special place in his heart for his native state.
During his acceptance speech, Tom said something that really resonated with me. He asked simply: "What if?"
"What if" we did something unique with our biking trail system? "What if" we started a real quality-of-life movement in the Natural State? "What if" we strived for something bigger and bolder? Blessed with so much natural beauty and the friendliest people on earth, Arkansas is in the "What if?" business -- and business is good.
Since 2010, the number of visitors to Arkansas has increased by 23 percent, which has resulted in an increase in state and local tax revenue of 32 percent thanks to all of the visitors spending money in this state.
Often, visitors come back to stay after experiencing all that we have to offer. Look at almost any list of reasons why a business or entrepreneur relocates and, near the top, you'll find those three magic words -- quality of life. It's a phrase synonymous with Arkansas.
As our tourism industry grows, so does our tourism infrastructure, which includes everything from hotels and restaurants to our state parks, museums and ever-growing bike trails.
Consider the economic impact of Arkansas's tourism industry last year:
In 2015, Arkansas welcomed more than 28 million visitors who spent more than $7 billion. That added some $500 million in tax revenue to state and local coffers. Tourism is vital to our economy, and it's projected to be one of the fastest-growing industries over the next decade.
In my first year as governor, I've had opportunities to promote tourism in almost every corner of the state. I took a bike ride along the Delta Heritage Trail. I announced that Bentonville had attracted the 2016 International Mountain Biking World Summit. And just last week at the Governor's Mansion, we celebrated with Rosanne Cash the restoring of the Historic Dyess Colony and the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home in the Upper Delta. Already, the Cash home in Dyess is drawing visitors from all over the world.
The other day, I heard a story about a couple from Australia who were passing through. They stopped in our visitor's center in West Memphis to get a map. What they also received was a warm, friendly welcome from one of our state's ambassadors working at the center. Thanks to that worker's passion and enthusiasm, the couple said they would make it a point to spend more time in Arkansas when they returned.
Stories like this are common in our state's tourism industry; as a state, Arkansas really does stand out above the rest.