COVID-19 trashed Utah’s $10B travel and tourism scene, but it may be on the rebound
SALT LAKE CITY — The COVID-19 public health crisis has decimated Utah’s multibillion-dollar travel and tourism industries, but even as case counts across the state remain in record territory, some glimmers of recovery are beginning to appear.
While Utah’s national parks are among the state’s biggest tourist draws, restrictions brought on by the pandemic led to the loss of 3.3 million visitors to the so-called Big 5 just between January and August of this year — a drop of over 40%.
But the worst of those impacts may be in the rearview mirror as visitor traffic volumes have shown steady growth since brief closures of the national facilities in the spring.
Zion National Park Superintendent Jeff Bradybaugh said the southern Utah gem, and the state’s first national park, just saw a record month of visitors.
“We just had the most visitors ever in the month of September,” Bradybaugh said. “We’re grateful to see the rebound.”
Bradybaugh was part of a wide-ranging Zoom discussion Wednesday focused on the state’s travel and tourism sector and hosted by the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.
Before the curtain of pandemic-related restrictions dropped decisively in mid-March, Utah tourism and travel was racking up another set of benchmarks, including over $10 billion in visitor spending, some $1.3 billion in related tax revenues, over 800,000 room nights booked just in Salt Lake City and an annual growth track north of 5%.
The year before COVID-19 appeared saw unprecedented spending and tax receipts, more visitors than ever packing Utah’s state and national parks and a ski season that, even truncated by COVID-19, still managed to approach record volumes.
Analysis by Gardner researchers shows Utah’s national park visitation has been affected by the loss of international visitors (U.S. travel restrictions), the reduction in long-distance domestic visitors (travelers staying closer to home) and park visitor limitations (enacted by the National Park Service to insure social distancing). However, droves of Utahns and visitors from nearby states are looking for outdoor recreation opportunities and have helped drive visits to Utah state parks to levels well above 2019 visitor volumes.
Vicki Varela, managing director of the Utah Office of Tourism, had a simple message to deliver about what Utah residents can do, individually, to help the tourism and travel industry recover from COVID-19 impacts.
“The most important, the most fundamental thing everyone can do to facilitate the recovery of our industry is to wear their face masks,” Varela said.
Varela noted that while international tourism has taken a precipitous drop amid pandemic conditions, short- and medium-distance domestic visitors are still very much in play for the state’s recreation-related businesses. And the collective behaviors of Utah residents in response to COVID-19 are under close observation by those prospective visitors.
“I cannot overstate the importance of that personal responsibility,” Varela said. “That’s what our visitors are watching for.
“The success of this varies around the state. Consumers respond positively to seeing people, even in the outdoors, wearing face masks. They want to know they’re coming to a place where people are showing personal responsibility.”
Bradybaugh said mask usage appears to be on the upswing among Zion visitors.
“I can honestly say we’ve seen an increase in mask use, dramatically over the course of the summer,” Bradybaugh said. “That’s important. We want visitors to stay healthy ... and our frontline staff who are interacting with thousands of visitors a day.”
Perhaps not surprisingly amid a public health crisis that has kept the populous cooped up at home, rural Utah travel and tourism destinations are on a faster road to recovery than their urban counterparts.
In a side-by-side Gardner analysis of hotel room occupancy rates in Springdale, Zion National Park’s gateway community and downtown Salt Lake City, the tiny village of 600 or so residents was easily outperforming Utah’s capital city.
While both locales saw occupancy rates drop some 80% below normal in the early days of the pandemic, Springdale has seen a steady recovery from that trough to current volumes close to 2019 levels. Salt Lake City’s hotels, however, continue to reel and in late September were still seeing occupancy rates over 50% below last year.
Visit Salt Lake President/CEO Kaitlin Eskelson said the pandemic has led to the loss of over 100 convention and meeting events that would have occupied 600,000 hotel room/nights and generated some $340 million in revenues.
But Eskelson said she can see some light at the end of the tunnel.
“The future is very bright,” Eskelson said. “As of today, we’ve hit 94% of our booking goals. (It’s) just about pivoting in the moment and being responsive to the time.”
Varela also predicted that once the snow starts falling, Utah’s ski resorts were going to be well prepared to safely accommodate skiers and snowboarders following the previous season’s abrupt and unexpected halt last spring. Modified procedures are likely to include new reservation systems, social distancing strategies for queues and tram/lift riders and retooling food service.
“From the day they closed in mid-March they have been working on initiatives to keep skiers safe,” Varela said.
She also noted a shift in marketing strategies, which in a “normal” year would be targeting skiers from U.S. coastal markets to focusing much closer to home.
“This year a big part of the tourism economy is Utahns getting out and exploring our own state,” Varela said.