Moab businesses report strong start to tourist season

After 2022 and 2023 slumps, 2024 spring seems robust.

(Sophia Fisher | Moab Times-Independent) People gather outside Back of Beyond Books in Moab on April 12, 2024.

After some trepidation following post-coronavirus travel slumps, several business owners are reporting a relatively strong start to the 2024 season.

For Chile Pepper Bike Shop, the week of Easter Jeep Safari — which occurred March 23–31 — served as a beneficial jolt to the traditional kickoff of spring tourist season.

“Easter weekend was a great start,” said store manager Phillip Martin. “I would say we were more consistent through March in general.”

Several hoteliers said the same at recent Grand County Travel Council Advisory Board meetings.

“We had an exceptionally busy Jeep Safari/Easter week,” said Brian Hunnings, chair of the board and manager of Red Cliffs Lodge.

“We did really well on Jeep Safari,” agreed Rebecca Monceaux, another member of the board who manages sales for the Element Moab. “…The season has hit full swing for us.”

While not necessarily indicative of the upcoming year, a robust spring may come as a relief following several years of post-coronavirus corrections in the tourism market.

“Everyone’s brand is diluted from COVID,” said Grand County Economic Development Director Ben Fredregill. “This is not a Moab-only [issue].”

At an international tourism conference he recently attended in Berlin, Germany, Fredregill said he was surprised at the money other adventure-tourist destinations are pouring into their marketing efforts.

“We are in a hugely competitive market — it’s always been competitive,” he said. “It is now on steroids.”

Fredregill noted that Moab’s tourist economy has faced other post-pandemic challenges, too. He specifically named the recent appeal of international travel coupled with the sluggish return of international tourists to U.S. markets, and increased selectivity in travel generally.

Indeed, following a bumper 2021 when the county’s Transient Room Tax revenue soared by 45% over 2019 levels, tax revenues noticeably slumped. They declined by 11.6% from 2021 to 2022 and another 8.4% from 2022 to 2023, according to Utah Office of Tourism analysis of inflation adjusted data from the Utah State Tax Commission.

Simultaneously, local hotels and short-term rentals had slightly more empty rooms in 2023 than 2022. According to Smith Travel Research, occupancy dropped 4% in 2023 compared to 2022. The research company Lighthouse estimated that occupancy of short-term rentals dropped by 5% the same year.

(Lighthouse also found that Grand County’s short-term rental supply climbed 14% from 2022 to 2023.)

The post-pandemic slackening isn’t necessarily unique to Moab, however. Many of Utah’s popular parks saw “a bit of a dip” following a travel-heavy 2021, per Denise Jordan, the director of marketing analytics and research for the Utah Office of Tourism.

“What we’ve seen since then is a … leveling out back to what we had seen in 2017, 2018, 2019,” Jordan said.

Visitation for Canyonlands National Park reflect that — their roughly 800,000 visitors in 2022 and 2023 roughly mirrors 2016–19. Arches National Park, on the other hand, saw about 1.4 million visitors in 2022 and 2023, more closely resembling 2015 and 2016 totals.

Jordan said one of the biggest differencesbetween Utah’s pre- and post-pandemic tourism is the absence of international visitors.

“What we know we’re missing is some of the international travel,” she said. “We haven’t seen international travel fully rebound.”

The state tourism office currently expects tourists from places like Europe and Asia to rebound to “2019 or greater numbers” in 2025, Jordan said.

Fredregill said he’s heard that many travelers are also more selective in their vacations.

“People that normally took three trips are now taking one,” he said.

At Chile Pepper, Martin said he’s seeing more spontaneous trips and fewer pre-booked travels.

“It feels like seat-of-your-pants tourism,” he joked.

Regardless, several business owners and managers reported rosy business in the first quarter of 2024.

Michael Miller, manager of Dewey’s Restaurant and Bar, said 2023 was a “decent” year and he’s anticipating the same this season.

“The mild weather really helped,” Miller said. “We feel like we’re in a good spot.”

At the travel council board’s March 12 meeting, both Hunnings and Monceaux reported a strong March.

“People are not afraid to spend money,” Hunnings said. “We’re definitely seeing a return of guests that all went to Europe last year because Europe opened up after COVID and now they’re back.”

Moab Chamber of Commerce Board President Shalee Bryant at the board’s April 9 meeting said she’s heard positive forecasts from several local businesses.

“I am hearing people are a little bit more optimistic than they were last year,” Bryant said. She noted, however, that some food trucks are still seeing deflated earnings after a tough 2023.

“They’re feeling a little concerned right now — just don’t want another repeat,” she said.

At the bike shop, Martin said the outdoor industry is still undergoing a reset and stabilization after the coronavirus boom. Staff are being conservative with their plans, he said, but they’re still feeling optimistic about business in 2024.

“The weather is good and getting better,” he said. “In general, I think the vibes are pretty high.”

This story was first published by The Times-Independent.