After a decade of steady growth and record numbers, the pandemic has proven to be a drag on Utah’s tourism industry, which has seen widespread declines in visits and revenues in 2020.
The forecast looks better for 2021, however. And while some tourism-dependent industries experienced a financial decline during the pandemic, some areas – like recreation-based retail, the ski industry, and the state park system – appear to be on the rise.
That’s according to the State of Utah‘s Travel and Tourism Industry report from the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, released Wednesday. The in-depth analysis examines everything from national park attendance to the ski industry, leisure retail and more. Here are some key findings from 2020:
- Tourists contributed $ 7.07 billion to Utah’s economy, down 29.8% from 2019. That translates to $ 1.16 billion in total tax revenue, a decrease by 17.9%.
- The travel and tourism industry supported around 119,600 jobs in 2020, a decrease of 13.5% from the previous year.
- Wages in the tourism industry were also down 10.4% year over year.
- The hospitality industry has been hit, with hotel occupancy rates falling 26% and daily room rates down almost 16%.
- Utah’s ski areas and state parks have had no trouble attracting tourists, with more days to ski in the 2020-21 season than any previous season, and an increase in visitation for the Most state parks, which overall had a banner year.
In what will come as no surprise to anyone who has tried buying a motorhome, bicycle or boat, recreation related sales has been one aspect of the tourism industry that has grown in 2020. boats, recreational vehicle dealers and retail sporting goods have all seen year-on-year increases in taxable sales.
Recreation and vacation camps saw their sales increase by 81%.
This growing popularity of outdoor recreation was telling for report author Jennifer Leaver, the institute’s senior tourism analyst.
“It makes sense that (outdoor recreation) has become popular, but mountain bikes are selling and boat sales are higher with RV sales – it surprised me how much these things have increased. “she said.
State parks versus national parks
The pandemic year has been a disappointing one for Utah’s national parks – overall, Utah’s Power Five saw double-digit visit percentage declines, with Bryce Canyon recording the largest drop at 43% .
Overall, Utah’s five national parks received 7.8 million visitors combined, down 27% from 2019.
But the rebound has been breathtaking, with all five of Utah’s national parks seeing record visits from October 2020 to June 2021.
“It happened quite quickly once the vaccines were available. … I expected him to come close to the baseline again, but literally setting records – that was interesting, ”said Leaver.
The Gardner Institute attributes much of the decline to COVID-19 restrictions, which have closed parks for a time and deterred out-of-state travel.
This was not the case for the Utah State Park System, which had a banner year and likely saw a surge in tourists due to national park closures, though it also has been affected by the pandemic restrictions.
State parks saw a record 10.6 million recreational visits, nearly 10% of which came from Sand Hollow State Park in southern Utah, which hosted 1.3 million people. Meanwhile, Steinaker State Park near Vernal in eastern Utah saw a stunning 183% increase in visits.
Even with a drop in the number of visits, tourism in national parks has always had an impact on the local economies of rural Utah. According to the report, visitors spent $ 878 million in national park communities and supported 13,600 jobs. These numbers are down from $ 1.2 billion and $ 18,700, respectively, in 2019.
Since 2015, visits to national and state parks have evolved differently, with state parks becoming more and more popular. The report highlights the backbone of the Utah Tourism Board, from the “Mighty Five” campaign, which aimed to promote the state’s national parks, to the “Red Emerald” initiative, which aims to distribute travelers statewide while promoting the least visited. state parks and monuments.
“Utah residents and out-of-state visitors are passionate about the wonders of our state. We encourage more immersive trips off the beaten track to create a perpetual visitor economy, ”said Vicki Varela, director general of the tourism board, in a statement.
Leaver says the increase in popularity of state parks could be the result of the success of the Red Emerald campaign – but the state’s national park closures earlier this year, combined with an explosion of crowds later in the year and into 2021, could also push people to smaller, more distant destinations.
What could be the 2019-2020 ski season? We will never know after the early closure of resorts due to the pandemic. But it was on track to be a profitable year, and even with the closings, the season ranked second for skier spending with $ 1.55 billion, and fifth for skier days.
Resorts came up with creative measures the following season to stay open, such as enforcing mask warrants, social distancing, rental and parking reservations, and food service changes.
As a result, the 2020-21 season was the busiest on record with 5.3 million skier days.
It’s hard to predict where this year’s tumultuous ski season will head – mountainous Utah experienced the snowiest October in over a decade, followed by one of the months of November. the driest and now what promises to be a snowy December. Central Wasatch resorts reported nearly 19 inches of snow on Wednesday as skiers flocked to the mountains.
More Airbnbs, fewer hotels
Taxable sales of recreation and hospitality declined in almost everything from the performing arts and spectator sports to hotels. Restaurants saw the smallest decline, from $ 4.9 billion in 2019 to $ 4.46 billion in 2020, a drop of 9%.
Even with the influx of skiers and visitors to state parks, Utah hotels have seen widespread declines in revenues and bookings. In 2019, the average hotel occupancy rate was 63% – in 2020 it has fallen to 46%. Occupancy statewide hit its lowest point in April, down 67% from 2019, but rebounded later in the year.
At nearly 48%, Salt Lake County saw one of the worst declines in transitional room tax revenue compared to 2019, a useful metric for gauging how much hotels are making.
However, rural Utah counties saw some of the biggest declines in tax revenue – Emery suffered a 31% impact, Garfield suffered a 36% drop, and San Juan suffered the biggest loss of any county. of Utah with 52%.
Leaver says the reason for the decline is twofold: National park closures sent a shock wave through rural tourism economies, especially the hospitality industry, which spread through the summer. And the lack of international tourism, which usually plays a big role in southern Utah, has left many hotels in shock.
But Leaver also expects a rebound there, telling Deseret News: “If we look to 2021, I think they’ll be back where they should be.”
As hotel revenues declined, short-term rentals, available through popular platforms like Airbnb or VRBO, have grown in popularity.
The number of short-term rentals has increased 24% over the past two years, from 15,706 units available in Utah in 2019 to 20,634 in 2021.
Many of these rentals appeared in rural Utah, and Juab County saw a 213% increase, Sevier County an 86% increase, and Beaver an almost 78% increase.
Where do all these tourists come from?
International travel has plummeted due to the pandemic, but domestic travel still has an impact on Utah’s tourism industry – in 2020, non-domestic residents accounted for 21% of overall visitor spending.
About 11% of those trips were from California, the most of any state, followed by Nevada at 7% and Idaho at 6%. Colorado, Arizona and Texas were not far behind.
The bulk of international travel came from Canada – 41% to be exact, with Mexico coming in second with 8%, and Australia and the UK each accounting for 5% of international tourists.
Domestic travel saw a strong recovery in 2021, although international travel still lags behind.
According to the report, experts predict a 20% increase in domestic travel and a 73% increase in international arrivals for 2021 compared to 2020.
Leaver does not view the pandemic visitation record as an anomaly. On the contrary, she believes that these trends could continue.
“I would expect a continuation of visits to national parks and state parks above 2021, even if it’s just slightly above,” she said, extending that forecast to the ski industry.
“I feel like people just want to travel, and they’re going crazy again,” she said.