By Governor Beebe
With the recent change to Daylight Saving Time, our warmer-than-usual weather and Spring Break upon us, Arkansans are already outdoors enjoying the Natural State. An enormous part of our quality of life in Arkansas comes from having so many forms of recreation readily available to us.
Our state's scenic diversity, beautiful parks, museums, resorts, hotels, and restaurants also draw many visitors here every year. In 2011, travelers spent more than $5.6 billion dollars in Arkansas. The year saw the largest increase in tourist spending since 2008. Over the past 11 years, Arkansas's tourism sector has grown faster than all other economic sectors, except for health and education. Tourism has also been a source of job growth, with employment in the industry rising more than 20 percent since the beginning of 2001. More than 60,000 Arkansans now work in tourism-related fields. As America emerges from the recession and consumers feel more confident in spending, we hope to see even more people discovering and enjoying our state as modern-day Arkansas Travelers.
Undoubtedly, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville will continue to bring new visitors to Arkansas. Despite opening to the public just four months ago, the museum has already welcomed more than 185,000 visitors. Interest has been well ahead of projections, and public reaction has been enthusiastic. The latest accolade came from the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, who called it the most exciting museum he had ever seen. While Crystal Bridges is Arkansas's newest cultural beacon, it's just one of many unique attractions drawing folks to the Natural State.
Another popular attraction is Crater of Diamonds State Park near Murfreesboro, which recently celebrated its 40th anniversary. The park is the world's only diamond-producing site open to the public. Lucky visitors get to take home the precious stones they find in the park. Even if you don't dig up a diamond, there are other treasures to be found throughout the state.
The James Beard Foundation recently called attention to one of them. The organization, which promotes the culinary arts, named Jones Bar-B-Q Diner in Marianna one of five American Classics this year. Some incarnation of the diner has been open since at least the 1910s, making it one of the nation's oldest African-American owned restaurants. As Jones Bar-B-Q demonstrates, Arkansas's rich history is an attraction in itself.
Visitors to Arkansas often leave as unofficial ambassadors, telling everyone about their experiences and bragging about our state's amenities. We, ourselves, need to remember the riches, natural and man-made, that make Arkansas great. Staying acquainted with our favorite places and discovering new ones will help us enjoy our time here, and help us convince out-of-state visitors to do the same.