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FOX 13 News 360: Utah tourism’s lessons from the pandemic

Posted at 12:00 AM, Apr 12, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-12 02:02:10-04

As of 2019, tourism supported one out of 11 jobs in Utah and generated over a billion dollars annually in state and local taxes.

But the pandemic put a pause on traveling for many visitors.

Exact numbers for sales and taxes generated by travel and tourism in 2020 and 2021 aren’t available yet, but industry insiders are well aware of which parts of the state have had the biggest declines.

“All of the tourism industry has suffered,” said Vicki Varela, director of the Utah Office of Tourism.

“The greatest pain throughout the state has been in these populated urban areas. Think about downtown Salt Lake,” Varela said.

Mark White with Visit Salt Lake agrees.

“The meetings and conventions that we have booked through Visit Salt Lake that subsequently canceled amounted to approximately $360 million in losses,” White said.

That figure represents what was projected to have been spent on things like hotel rooms, restaurants and transportation.

White says there are signs of better things to come.

“Kiwanis International will hold their convention here in June. It normally has 6,000 people. This year it will be smaller, about 2,000 people,” White said.

The Salt Palace has been prepped with state-of-the-art tech capabilities that will allow Kiwanis and other organizations to essentially broadcast their conventions to remote participants.

The tourism rebound seems to be happening at a faster pace in southern Utah.

Elaine Gizler of the Moab Office of Tourism says spring of 2020 was rough.

"Our occupancy in April went down to 11 percent occupancy versus being in the 70s in prior years," she said.

Gizler says current numbers (April 2021) are already back to pre-pandemic levels.

Going forward, many who work in travel and tourism foresee lasting changes as a result of the pandemic.

At Snowbird Resort, lift lines may remain spaced-out for years to come as staff and guests seemed to like the extra room.

“We had new food trailers this season that allowed guests to order food right at the base of the mountain without having to go into any buildings. It was quick grab-and-go food, and guests really seemed to like that,” said Sarah Sherman with Snowbird.

The state legislature invested roughly $100 million in travel and tourism during the last session, “for trails and boat ramps and other essential outdoor recreation infrastructure,” Varela said.

Two new state parks will also be created.

“I have a view that you should never let a crisis go to waste, and the pandemic was a crisis that I think escalated, elevated all of our understanding,” Varela said when asked whether the pandemic influenced the legislators' approval.

"There’s been some carelessness around simple things like picking up trash. There’s been a disappointing amount of vandalism," she added.