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Utah tourism officials await shutdown's end with bated breath

Published October 3, 2013 9:12 am

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This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

With gates down at Utah's five national parks and federal employees suffering a financial blow that is likely to limit their recreational spending, the state's tourism industry has its collective fingers crossed that the federal shutdown will end soon.

"I'm really hoping that we get some resolution in the next couple days," said Jim Burgess, president of the Utah Hotel & Lodging Association. "If they could have waited a month or two, it wouldn't have been as impactful."

As it is, people — many from outside the United States — are in Utah to visit its world-famous geography, and they're being told that they simply can't. Burgess says most hotels will cancel reservations within 24 hours, but that doesn't do a lot of good when you've already booked an international flight out.

"People who came here to visit the parks don't really have an alternate," he said. "Obviously, that leaves a bad taste in their mouth."

The State Office of Tourism has tried to remedy that, releasing "50 Awesome Alternatives to Utah's National Parks" on its website Wednesday. They point to the ski areas, state parks, scenic highways and cultural attractions that are unaffected by the federal closures. (Click here for a map of campgrounds unaffected by the shutdown.)

But surely if you go to Moab and can't see Canyonlands or Arches, you're going to be an unhappy camper, right? State Office of Tourism Communications Director Jay Kinghorn disagrees. "We think the alternatives in Moab are pretty spectacular," he said, citing the stunning views at the still-open Dead Horse Point State Park and nearby mountain bike trails. "Here's just another opportunity to introduce people to these areas."

Kingham said his office has "kicked into overdrive" since the shutdown, filling a void that was created when the National Parks Service took down its website and left travelers in the lurch.

Marty Carpenter, vice president of the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, is in Washington with about 70 other business leaders on a trip that was planned pre-shutdown, listening as the state's delegates justify their actions and make "really valid points," he said. But that doesn't lessen the frustration.

"In what is essentially a standoff, it's the economy that gets taken hostage," Carpenter said. After "the biggest decline since the Great Depression," Carpenter said that it's especially galling that the biggest obstacles businesses now face come in the form of shutdowns and debt-ceiling showdowns.

There is a multiplier effect of the federal closures, he said: People who are employed by the government won't spend money, and then people who depend on those employees — such as restaurateurs in Weber and Davis counties who may see less Hill Air Force Base clientele — also dry up. And the effects aren't just felt in the short term; those affected may be mulling ski passes for this winter, or a new car, or any number of nonessential things that they are now re-evaluating in the face of financial uncertainty.

"At a real basic level, you're taking money out of the economy," he said. "It sends a pretty big negative wave through our state."

Visit Salt Lake communications director Shawn Stinson says that while the shutdown is hardly fruitful overall, it does present "quite an opportunity" for places like Salt Lake City. "We are open and ready to assist visitors who were ready to go to national parks," Stinson said. He is concerned, however, that foreign convention attendees and other visitors might experience holdups due to a shortage of customs officials at ports of entry. Right now, doTERRA has an expected 11,500 meeting at the Salt Palace, and 16,000 are due for a four-day convention starting Oct. 26.

"Hopefully, the situation will have ended," he said.

mpiper@sltrib.com

Twitter: @matthew_piper