A Mississippi couple was making a standard pit stop Wednesday at the Welcome Center on Interstate 40 in Van Buren when they were ambushed by representatives from Van Buren and Fort Smith.
On their way home from visiting family in Oklahoma, Jim Collins and his fiancee Gloria Herrington of Laurel, Miss., were welcomed to the area Wednesday with a gift basket and mayoral proclamations in honor of National Travel and Tourism Week.
The couple was chosen at random to receive the large gift basket, stuffed with local and state merchandise, gift certificates, and Arkansas and Missouri Railroad tickets.
"It’s imperative that we highlight tourism during National Tourism week," said Maryl Koeth, director of the Van Buren Advertising and Promotion Commission, noting how important tourism is to the area.
She and Claude Legris, director of the Fort Smith Convention and Visitors Bureau, noted some of the local attractions, such as the Historic Downtown and the Drennen-Scott House in Van Buren, and Judge Isaac Parker’s Courthouse and the future U.S. Marshals Museum in Fort Smith.
"If you do your research, you can easily be in the area three to four days," Legris said.
Van Buren Mayor Bob Freeman and Fort Smith Mayor Sandy Sanders shook the couple’s hands and presented them with Tourism Week proclamations.
"In Arkansas, tourism is one of our critical industries….in Van Buren and Fort Smith, especially," Sanders said.
In 2011, tourism brought more than $5.8 billion to Arkansas in the form of travel expenditures and taxes, said Kevin Billings, manager of the Welcome Center.
The Van Buren Welcome Center itself saw 97,705 travelers in 2012, Billings said.
Billings remarked on the influence of the center’s travel consultants, who often go so far as to plan itineraries for visitors.
"They do so much more than pass out maps," Billings said.
Billings himself assisted the Mississippi couple, showing them a map detailing the Trail of Tears historic sites after Collins mentioned an interest in Native American history.
Collins called Arkansas a "pretty" state, and said he and Herrington have always enjoyed traveling through the area.
The pair stop at the Welcome Center every time they drive through the area, about a couple of times a year, they said. This time they were on the way home from Collins’ granddaughter’s First Communion, they said.
Though the couple has considered visiting the Van Buren - Fort Smith area in detail, they have never made the time, they said.
"We’ve come through, we’ve just never had time to stop," Herrington said. "But we’ve talked about it several times."
After hearing so much about what the area has to offer, Collins said he and Herrington might take the time to visit the area once they left the Welcome Center that day.
"We’re not really punching a time clock, so this may be the time to do it," Collins said.