Tourism is becoming more important to Salt Lake County’s economy by the year.
Visitors spent $3.72 billion in the county during the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2016, according to a study released Tuesday by the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. That amounts to 44 percent of all tourist dollars spent in the state during that period, a percentage that inched up from 42 percent two years earlier.
Similarly, taxes paid by those visitors climbed robustly to roughly $500 million in FY16, 41 percent of the $1.2 billion in tourism taxes collected overall — enough money to cut the tax bills paid by each Salt Lake County household by $1,285 that year.
Taking care of all those guests also provided jobs for more than 54,064 county residents, continuing a three-year trend of annual employment increases of 7.5 percent.
“We knew the visitor spending number would be significant, but we’re superexcited to see that we’re 44 percent of the state’s visitor economy,” said Scott Beck, who leads the county’s efforts to attract tourists and conventions as the president and CEO of Visit Salt Lake. “It shows that the real anchor to Utah’s visitor economy is Salt Lake County.”
Five economic sectors accounted for 81 percent of the county’s taxable sales. They were:
• Food services and drinking places — $575 million.
• Traveler accommodations — $497 million.
• Car rentals — $225 million.
• Food and beverages bought at stores — $133 million.
• General merchandise sales — $101 million.
Even parking lots and garages, the least impacted tourism-related sector monitored by the State Tax Commission, took in $54,000 in that fiscal year, the latest for which figures are available.
Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams said he was impressed by the employment numbers in the report.
The county’s ability to attract “tourists, conventiongoers and skiers has helped boost employment across the board — from retail stores and restaurants to transportation and performing arts facilities,” he said in a news release. “That adds up to a stronger and more diverse local economy and a revenue stream that we can reinvest in our community.”
By occupation, the Gardner Institute study calculated that travel and tourism in the county provided the highest number of jobs in the following areas during FY16:
• Restaurants and bars — 9,730.
• Hotels and other accommodations — 6,863.
• Travel arrangements — 5,198.
• Airplane reservations — 2,998.
• Retail — 2,115.
• Sightseeing transportation — 1,909.
Beck said the Gardner Institute study corroborated many findings of Visit Salt Lake’s recent annual report, which described calendar year 2017 as a record year — despite the loss of the twice-annual Outdoor Retailer trade shows to Denver. His sales team booked 736,203 hotel rooms last year, up 7.5 percent over the previous winter.
The snowy winter of 2016-17 also contributed to the sale of more than 49,000 Ski City Super Passes, which allows purchasers to ski at any of the county’s four resorts — Brighton, Solitude, Snowbird and Alta. Those sales generated $3.6 million, Beck said, a 52 percent bump over the previous year.
What pleased him as well is that “we still have enormous room to grow.”
Unlike the communities around Utah’s “Mighty 5” national parks, where most hotels almost fill nightly in many seasons, Beck said, “our occupancy rate last year was 72 percent. Our numbers are good, but there’s clearly room to grow. And we have the infrastructure along the Wasatch Front to support that growth.”
In addition, he expects more positive results down the road from a new Utah Office of Tourism campaign that adds “an urban messaging component” to the state’s traditional sales pitch, like promoting food, nightlife and shopping in Salt Lake City.
“We’re not just redrock and snow,” he said. “That urban message is an element that seems to be what we’ve been missing.”