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Local support key to recovery travel, tourism

OPINION by Jack Bateman, guest column | March 31, 2021 at 4:00 a.m.
Guests float down The Lazy River at Magic Springs Theme and Water Park in June. - Photo by Richard Rasmussen of The Sentinel-Record

Summer is a pivotal time for the travel and tourism industry. Experts have been sharing insights on how those in the industry can increase revenue to offset the deeply felt impacts of the pandemic as we gear up for the summer season. During this time, I have been thinking about what I've witnessed firsthand this past year at Arkansas' only theme and water park.

Throughout the course of a year, our park experienced unforeseen economic challenges, but unlike many attractions across the country, we've made it to the other side. Though COVID-19 brought crises that were new to my years of experience, local support and trust brought us through. Now, as we look toward life post-pandemic, our state's attractions and tourist locations need local support more than ever.

Early on, many popular tourist destinations were forced to shut down out of an abundance of caution or adapt to new protocols increasing the cost operations and dramatically decreasing revenue. In 2020, the travel industry in the U.S. saw a 42% decrease in travel-related spending due to the mandated closures. The Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism reported that just under 69,000 Arkansans worked directly within the state's travel industry in 2019, with tourism generating more than $400 million in state tax revenue. Even though we saw this industry get hit especially hard in 2020, we also saw Arkansans doing what they could to support local businesses and keep such an imperative part of our state's economy afloat.

Emerging trends in our industry are revealing an even bigger need for local support in 2021. Analysis by Tourism Economics shows that Americans want to experience the charming beauty of nature and fun outdoor activities for their travel plans while also visiting places that they can trust to be committed to the overall safety of their guests. These are all things that are culturally embedded and unique to our state and offer our industry a chance to draw our local and outer markets back. However, experts have also discovered that around 58% of travelers in America don't plan on pursuing major travel plans until at least the second half of the year as they work toward regaining confidence in traveling out of state. With this delay, tourism entities like us rely on our local markets to produce the sustaining percentage of our revenue.

Arkansans still need to know that they can trust us to advocate for their safety when they visit various attractions and destinations, despite the changing COVID-19 landscape. In 2020, we redoubled our commitment to offering a safe, fun place for families and thrillseekers to gather outdoors during strange times. Working alongside state and local officials, our team at Magic Springs was able to quickly pivot, implementing new protocols to protect our employees and guests. These measures played a crucial role in us garnering local support and trust. Every person who walked through that front gate mattered more than ever and we carry this perspective with us into 2021.

As we begin navigating the new normal, the importance of trust and safety will become more and more vital for travel and tourism. This is why we will continue to do what we can to protect our guests and reassure them that when they come to visit our water park, ride thrill rides, attend special events or go to our concerts, our commitment to keeping them and their families safe is unwavering.

As industry stakeholders, this pandemic has reinforced to us that, while we do have our outer markets to bolster revenue in "normal" times, ultimately, having local support and trust is integral to our industry and will be key to its recovery moving forward. Arkansans put their trust in us and supported us through last year, and we have to be just as committed to safety and fun as we all look to a post-COVID-19 future.

Jack Bateman is the general manager of Magic Springs Theme & Water Park in Hot Springs.

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