guest commentary from the office of Gov. Mike Beebe
Throughout my time as Governor, we have seen many twists and turns in the national economy that have made their impact known in Arkansas. Throughout both the tumultuous and brighter times, I've been extremely pleased by the accomplishments of the Arkansas tourism industry. Its members have worked hard to promote Arkansas's unfailing hospitality and the many wonders our State has to offer.
Arkansas is the first state in the U.S. where diamonds were found naturally, and the only state with a working diamond mine open to the public. Arkansas's Crater of Diamonds State Park in Murfreesboro made national news recently when a 14-year-old girl from Oklahoma sold a stone she found there. The 3.85-carat diamond sold for $20,000. The young woman plans to use this unexpected windfall to help pay for college.
For treasure seekers, the park is a tempting destination. On average, two diamonds are found each day by park visitors. This year, due to some good rains, the park is experiencing perfect conditions for visitors to find diamonds right on the surface of the search area. In fact, the 15th-largest diamond found at the park since 1972 turned up earlier this month. It's just one of more than 75,000 diamonds that have been found there since 1906.
Crater of Diamonds State Park is just one of Arkansas's 52 state parks, each of which shows our state's natural beauty in unique ways. Because of our State's diverse landscapes, vacationers can repeatedly visit Arkansas and have completely different experiences each time.
Tourists can easily spend a week on our lakes or on a heritage tour through the Delta. We've got everything from quaint mountain villages to a vibrant capital city with international attractions. In most years, we provide a relatively warm retreat in the winter. And even in colder winters, we offer many indoor activities, including the globally-known Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville. We showcase spring and fall colors in gorgeous locations as specific as Garvan Woodland Gardens in Hot Springs and as broad as our national forests and the Ozark Mountains. And we start every summer with the sights and sounds of Riverfest, kicking off one of the liveliest times of year for our tourism industry.
The money travelers spend here helps pay for State services, keeping the burden on our taxpayers lower. Travel and tourism expenditures in Arkansas total more than $5.7 billion each year, meaning visitors contribute more than $400 million in state and local taxes. In 2013, our state's dedicated tourism tax set a record, bringing in more than $12.7 million for Arkansas. Our executive director of parks and tourism predicts that 2014 could see that record broken again.
One thing that hasn't changed over the years in Arkansas is the desire to consistently exceed our guests' expectations. It's what brings people back here year after year, and spreads positive word-of-mouth around the globe. Our tourism industry will continue to make The Natural State an ever bigger attraction, giving people more good things to talk about in Arkansas.