An Ohio couple were surprised Thursday by Fort Smith and Van Buren representatives during their stop at the Welcome Center on Interstate 40 in Van Buren.

Mike and Pat Zehringer were welcomed to the area with a gift basket and mayoral proclamations in honor of National Travel and Tourism Week. The couple was traveling through Arkansas on their way to Memphis, they said.

As part of the proceedings, 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 a significant part of our economy," Sanders told the couple.

Visitors to Arkansas totaled 25,885,046 in 2014, according to the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism. Visitors spent an average of $258.78 per trip, resulting in over $6.6 billion in total travel expenditures, $334 million in state taxes and $126 million in local taxes.

For Crawford County, total travel expenditures for 2014 were $46,317,019 and travel generated payroll was $7,698,724 for 425 jobs.

Travel related state taxes generated in Crawford County were $2,805,202 and local taxes were $797,759 from a total of 192,775 visitors.

Holding the surprise ceremony is a recognition that for many people traveling the area, the Welcome Center is their first experience of Arkansas, said Maryl Koeth, Van Buren Advertising and Promotion Commission director.

People visit the centers for conversation, information, and to ask about traffic and road construction, said Kevin Billings, manager of the Welcome Center. Van Buren’s center saw about 90,000 travelers in 2014, he said.

Arkansas centers are a partnership between the Department of Parks and Tourism, which staffs the centers, and the State Highway and Transportation Department, which maintains the facilities.

Mike and Pat Zehringer had traveled that morning from Oklahoma City, where they had to pull over twice during the night because of the weather and spent at least two hours under tornado sirens. They were on their way back home to Dayton, they said.