Moab is drowning in tourists, and Utah is making Grand County spend millions a year to invite more

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Visitors take pictures and hike around Delicate Arch in Arches National Park near Moab on Saturday, March 5, 2016.

At Denver International Airport, an electronic billboard beams a short video to travelers, extolling the wonders of Moab and its redrock environs as a great place to vacation and seek adventure. Utah Transit Authority train cars plying the streets of Salt Lake County are wrapped in the irresistible scenery of Grand County, beckoning riders and passersby to “Discover Moab.”

In case someone hasn’t noticed, however, Moab has been discovered in a big way, raising questions about whether it is wise for Grand County to keep spending on such advertising. So many tourists go there to hike, camp, stargaze, four-wheel drive, climb, ride, jump, float, slackline — not to mention sit in traffic — that visiting Utah’s busted uranium town turned booming outdoor magnet is not always the joyful experience for which Moab is justly famous.

Cars back up for a mile or more at the entrance to Arches National Park; a drive through the congested town can take an hour; thoughtless partiers turn remote camping areas into all-night discos; UTVs clutter residential streets. And try getting seated at Miguel’s Baja Grill without waiting an hour.

“I fear the locals are losing the quality of life many have moved here for, and that’s quiet and solitude,” says Andy Nettell, owner of Back of Beyond Books, a few doors down Main Street from Miguel’s. “We spend money to get people to come. More people come and we have more money to spend. It is a cycle we won’t get out of until we can more wisely spend that money.”

Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune Money raised by Grand County's hotel room tax pays for ads like this on the side of UTA bus in Salt Lake City, pictured on April 19, 2019. With Moab crammed with tourists, some community leaders believe the time has come to spend this revenue in other ways, but state law requires nearly half to be spent on "tourism promotion."

As Moab visitation soared over the past decade to 3 million a year, more hotels keep rising along U.S. Highway 191, cashing in on the world’s fascination with Utah’s redrock wonders. A 4.25% levy on tourist accommodations, known as the transient room tax, or TRT, has reaped an increasing bounty of revenue that gets pumped right back into growing Grand County’s tourism.

This phenomenon was brought to the fore last week with a legislative audit examining how Utah counties spend their TRT money, an annual flow that has expanded from a modest $38.8 million stream in 2013 to a $59.4 million fire hose. Grand County’s share saw the greatest growth, from $2.1 million to $5.1 million last year.

The audit noted there are 2.4 visitors, on average, in Grand County for every permanent resident.

Accordingly, county services, roads, law enforcement and sewer are overwhelmed, while the workforce has fewer and fewer housing options. Many Moab business and elected leaders would like to devote more TRT money to address these infrastructure challenges, but the law doesn’t allow it.

The recent audit even chided Grand for using some of its TRT money to upgrade its airport runway so it can land 50-passenger jets — even though such an investment clearly supports tourism.

The audit focused on Grand and seven other counties, concluding they are largely spending this money within the confines of the law. But auditors note that the counties want greater flexibility in deciding how to use the funds, a sentiment echoed by business and elected leaders in Grand County.

“We should continue to advertise, but in a way that is relatable to our needs. If you have a difficult time with traffic and other issues, it makes sense to get your infrastructure up,” says County Clerk Chris Baird. “Flexibility is important as it is for any business to decide whether to advertise or upgrade their infrastructure.”

If Moab is like a business with customers lined up at the door, he reasons, wouldn’t it be better to spend money making sure they have a good experience as opposed to getting more to come?

As a County Council member a few years ago, Baird proposed diverting TRT money toward initiatives that would diversify the county’s tourism-centric economy. His main interest was in developing a Utah State University satellite campus, but his idea met resistance from some in the business community who felt that easing off marketing efforts would be too risky.

Now the new audit recommends the Legislature consider amending the law to give counties greater latitude in how they spend TRT revenue. Currently, counties must direct at least 47 percent on “tourism promotion,” while up to 53 percent may be spent on “mitigation” of tourism’s impacts.

Grand County’s Moab Area Travel Council, charged with overseeing the promotion share of the TRT pot, spends 72 percent of its $2.8 million promotional budget targeting out-of-state audiences, according to the audit. Much of that money goes through the Salt Lake City public relations firm Love Communications, and some supports the DiscoverMoab.com website, the Moab Information Center and a 68-page glossy guide.

But with Moab already bursting with visitors, does it make sense to keep funding campaigns inviting ever more people to Moab? The answer depends on whom you ask, but there is consensus that reforms are in order, and not just for Grand County’s tourism marketing, but across the state.

Home to Zion National Park and many other off-season attractions, Washington County literally receives more TRT revenue than it knows what to do with. According to the audit, it funneled unspent revenue into a reserve fund that held more than $10 million at the end of 2017.

Bakery owner Howard Trenholme, who heads the Moab Area Travel Council’s board, is hesitant to stop marketing efforts, while acknowledging counties like Grand that are rolling in TRT money should be able to reallocate it in ways that aren’t currently allowed.

“We want to constantly remind people we are are here,” says Trenholme, noting that his council is moving away from billboards and bus wraps in favor of digital platforms. The council is also putting more money into informational videos about treating the land with respect. It even used created materials to promote the town’s recently enacted ban on plastic bags at some retailers.

Meanwhile, Grand’s TRT pie, already the fourth largest in the state, is expected to keep growing because more hotels are going up.

Fearing that county services can’t keep pace, the County Council in February imposed a six-month moratorium on approving any more overnight accommodations. According to an analysis compiled by council member Jaylyn Hawks, there are already 2,586 hotel rooms in and around Moab, with another 919 under construction or proposed at eight properties. That figure doesn’t count hundreds of other overnight accommodations, including RV parks, public campgrounds and short-term home rentals.

“Moab is at a tipping point where they have infrastructure problems that have to be solved at the state, local and regional level," says Vicki Varela, who heads the Utah Office of Tourism. “Advertising is part of the mix for that.”

She insists the state as a whole and Moab in particular should overhaul its tourism messaging to promote a quality experience that enriches visitors’ lives, while respecting the needs of residents.

“More and more of the messaging out of Moab needs to be about sustainable practices, informing visitors and locals about the right way to experience that beautiful area so they are respectful of it,” says Varela, who was an architect of Utah’s successful “Mighty Five” campaign.

That push is credited with, or blamed for, depending on your perspective, the massive influx of visitors to Utah’s five national parks, two of which are in Grand County. Varela stresses that marketing success should not be measured by numbers alone.

“My commitment is to create a sustainable tourism economy, one that generates tax revenue and protects the quality of life of residents,” she says. Her office is moving forward with a new “Between” campaign, highlighting the “hidden gems” between southern Utah’s famous parks and targeting parents looking for enriching experiences for their children.

Still, Moab and Grand County themselves remain stuck in between — between the tides of tourists flooding a scenically blessed region and the rules that force them to lure more waves of visitors.