Utah sees signs of a tourism rebound and Zion sets a new record

(AP File Photo). Zion National Park near Springdale, Utah. No industry has felt the impact of the pandemic more than Utah's tourism, leisure and hospitality sector.

No part of Utah’s economy got slammed harder by COVID-19 than its tourism, leisure and hospitality sectors, but experts now say a sharp rebound is coming, thanks in part to the state’s scenic wonders.

Key to that optimism, though, is the widespread adoption of wearing face masks, which a top tourism official said Wednesday will be “fundamental” to reviving the industry.

“This is to protect lives in Utah, to protect the lives of visitors,” said Vicki Varela, managing director of the Utah Office of Tourism. “That’s what our visitors are watching for. They want to know that they’re coming to a place where people are showing personal responsibility.”

After bleeding millions a day in lost visitor dollars early in the pandemic, Utah’s “Mighty Five” national parks, its hotels and a host of businesses that feed, guide and entertain tourists are starting to see significant improvements, officials said in an online briefing.

Spending and employment in the sector remain between 13% to 17% below last year’s levels, but those trajectories are turning upward at a faster rate than for the nation as a whole, according to Jennifer Leaver, senior tourism analyst at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

The public’s elevated focus on outdoor recreation in wide open and one-of-a-kind landscapes are already giving the Beehive State distinct advantages over its competitors, Varela said.

“Utah has what people want,” she said. “Mother Nature played favorites here. This is a place where they can get out and breathe and feel whole again."

The state is also investing heavily, including with pandemic-relief dollars from Congress, to foster a rebound through strategic advertising and grants to keep rural tourism businesses afloat until patrons return in larger numbers, Varela said

Jeff Bradybaugh, superintendent at Zion National Park near Springdale, said the number of visitors in September set a new record for that month. And with many people now able to work and learn remotely, he and others expect the flow of visitors to Utah’s natural wonders will eventually exceed pre-pandemic levels, forcing new questions on how Utah manages their impacts.

“It’s going to rebound and be busy,” Bradybaugh predicted.

Since April, the state’s rural counties have seen tax collections on hotel stays bounce back faster than they have in urban areas — a further sign that visitors are seeking out sparsely population areas with lower COVID-19 case rates, according to Leaver.

She warned, though, that the state could see another downturn as colder weather approaches, which will force more activities indoors.

Utah lost at least $340 million in economic impact to its urban core, with coronavirus-related travel restrictions and convention cancelations that wiped out nearly 600,000 nights of hotel stays, according to Kaitlin Eskelsen, president and CEO of Visit Salt Lake. Yet the sector has seen 94% of its bookings rescheduled into 2021 and beyond, she said.

“If we can get through 2020 and 2021,” Eskelsen said, “we should be in very, very good shape long term in terms of vitality.”

Utah’s ski resorts, meanwhile, have “a lot of pent-up demand,” she added, and some have announced reservation systems, social distancing on ski lifts and new approaches to food service to ensure customer safety. “Our resorts are really excited to reopen and make it work,” Eskelsen said.

Experts say the state has also lucked out with having two massive tourism-related projects in the pipeline well before the health crisis.

The $4.1 billion Salt Lake City International Airport, which opened last month, will draw more direct international flights once air travel restrictions begin to lift, Eskelsen said.

And a 700-room convention center hotel under construction at the northwest corner of 200 South and West Temple in Utah’s capital is scheduled for completion in the fall of 2022. The $377 million Hyatt Regency, Eskelsen said, “is a game changer” and is already drawing major bookings.