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Hot Springs hotels look ahead as restrictions lift on out-of-state tourists

"Visitors in Hot Springs usually spend over $630 million. I bet you it will be about $230 million if we're lucky."

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — Hopes for that tourism leading an economic recovery are starting to rise in Hot Springs with the lifting of restrictions on out-of-state travelers, but the timing of when other businesses can reopen is complicating the financial outlook.

"It's just been devastating so far, so hopefully the quicker we can come out of it, the better off we'll all be," said Steve Arrison, CEO of Visit Hot Springs.

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Experts predicted Arkansas's largest tourist destination would quickly bounce back at the start of the coronavirus crisis, but that was when quarantines were predicted to last a couple weeks. Now two months into social distancing measures, leaders like Arrison are being cautious while assessing the damage so far.

"Visitors in Hot Springs usually spend over $630 million," he said. "I bet you it will be about $230 million if we're lucky."

Gov. Asa Hutchinson's Tuesday announcement allows hotels to book recreational guests from outside Arkansas, with a few exceptions for hard hit parts of the country. While that means a chance to meet the demand of travelers eager to get out of sheltered homes, it requires balance here. Those tourists see our low infection rates as an attraction, but Arrison is looking toward later stages to target them.

"When everything is over, we'll say 'hey, c'mon. It will be a great place to come to,'" he said. "And then our second step is the local campaign, which we won't start until our restaurants are 100% open."

The complications over restaurants are key. Turning away hungry tourists from partially full restaurants does nobody any good and could be trouble if waiting crowds grow. 

Beyond restaurants, lots of other things are still closed. If the only open options are dining, it could exacerbate the crowds and lead to a real setback later.

"There's just not a whole lot to do if you come here," Arrison said. "I think the last thing I want to see is our restaurants get slammed to a point where we can't go to 100% because there's concerns about social distancing."

Among the closed attractions are the Hot Springs National Park, which will need a nationwide determination from Washington on when they can reopen. The status of Oaklawn Racing and Casino Resort is still up in the air. Mid-America Science Museum and Magic Springs amusement park also remain closed.

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There are the lakes (which were very crowded with boaters last weekend amid great weather) and the new Northwoods mountain bike trails buoying at least a little hope that hotels fill up as the summer high season gets here.

"We're just excited that we're taking steps to get reopened and hopefully we'll be there sooner, not later," said Arrison.

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