Arkansas in growth mode for regional market

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. -- The Travel South Showcase, set for Feb. 24 to 27 in Hot Springs, will enable 26 Arkansas suppliers to show off the state to tour operators from 30 states and five countries.

While in town, they will not have far to look for changes to the tourist plant.

The 240,000-square-foot Hot Springs Convention Center, host of the Showcase, more than tripled in size in the last two years and will break ground on a 6,000-seat arena in late December, according to Gordon Mahoney, deputy director of the Hot Springs Advertising & Promotion Commission.

The official hotels for Travel South will be the Austin, connected to the convention center, and the Arlington Hotel.

Garvan Woodland Gardens, on Lake Hamilton, a botanical theme park that just expanded, will be on all city tours for delegates, said project manager Allan Magee, and some operators will be invited to dine there.

Initially, Magee sees 20% of the park's business coming from tour groups, and up to 33% within a few years.

To court this business, the attraction, owned by the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, designed a bus parking lot, installed a driver's lounge and created handicap accessible trails.

The exhibits are devoted to the natural history of the Delta region. There also will be entertainment on selected dates from March 1 to Oct. 31.

In the last year, the Fowler Fine Arts Center opened in Jonesboro.

During 2004, the Clinton Presidential Library and Heifer Project International (focusing on foreign cultures) will open in Little Rock.

Within three to five years, the Arkansas Game & Fish Nature Center in North Little Rock will open.

More than 20.3 million people visited the state in 2000, according to Joe David Rice, the state's director of tourism, a gain of 2.7% vs. 1999.

Before Sept. 11, a 3% increase was anticipated, he said, adding the state has not lost any major business because it largely depends on visitors arriving by surface travel.

In hotel news, the renovated Excelsior Hotel, Little Rock, will become a Peabody this year.

Also, in Rogers, Candlewood Suites opened its 100th U.S. property, offering 78 suites priced from $49 weekends, $89 weekdays. For information, call (501) 636-2783.

The annual Governor's Conference on Tourism is set for Springdale from March 17 to 19.

In other news, the Best Western Inn of the Ozarks, Eureka Springs, is rebuilding its convention center, which had been damaged by a fire. A late February opening is projected.

Agents with groups can request the Holiday Lights brochure and other sales aids from the Department of Parks & Tourism.

Call (800) 872-1259 or check the department's Web site at www.arkansas.com.

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