With Arkansans practicing social distancing, and unnecessary travel discouraged, Arkansas tourism has taken a hit due to the coronavirus pandemic, with many tourism destinations shut down indefinitely.
Travis Napper is the director of Tourism for Arkansas and says tourism has "screeched to a halt" due to the pandemic.
"That’s for, right now the safety of our visitors, the safety of our locals. That comes first before any recovery of tourism," Napper said.
Napper says the Arkansas Department of Parks, Tourism and Heritage is consistently in communication with the state Department of Health on the status of COVID-19.
Though Napper says there is no confirmed date as to when businesses and attractions will open up again, the department has shifted its focus to online offerings such as virtual tours of the Little Rock Zoo, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and others.
"We’re trying to shift the message to that of people getting to share their best memories and photos, but also some trivia, stuff like that to keep people engaged with Arkansas and what there is to offer," Napper said.
One major impact Napper says COVID-19 is having on tourism beyond the closure of businesses and attractions is the cancelling of events. Getting people to return to those large events once things begin to reopen will be a challenge.
"Sporting events, concerts, festivals that kind of bring life to all of our destinations across our state, and getting the confidence of the traveler back up, to bring those all back up and hope for the survival of all those things too because not all of those work on big budgets," Napper said.
One area of tourism that has made modifications but has not completely shut down is the state park system. Though popular trails such as the Cedar Falls trail in Petit Jean state park and the summit trails at Pinnacle Mountain are closed, as well as welcome centers, campgrounds and cabins, many trails and parks are still open for day use.
Meg Matthews, deputy chief of communications for the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism, says the decision for those closures came after the department realized how popular they were, making it hard to practice proper social distancing measures.
"That was not what we wanted to do initially, but we felt as though we had no choice. So there are 52 state parks peppered throughout the state. There are many parks that are still open," Matthews said.
Since there isn’t really a way to strictly enforce social distancing policies in the parks, Matthews says they are relying on the public to use common sense when visiting,
“Just try to allow enough distance between you and the person in front of you if you’re waiting in a line. If you’re walking on a trail, just try to maintain the length of a canoe oar if you can picture that in your mind. That’s the best thing to do,” Matthews said.
As far as when the parks will fully be open again, Matthews says that date is unclear.
"Just a very very fluid and unknown territory that we’re traveling. So we don’t have an opening date set to reopen anything. We’re just going to have to maintain strong diligence in observing what is going on and then making decisions as we go along," Matthews said.
The list of open parks can be found at ArkansasStateParks.com.