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HOW CAN UTAH LURE TOURISTS OF THE ‘90S?

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In the summer of 1962, Ralph and Juanita Burcombe loaded their 5-year-old daughter into the back seat of their turquoise-blue sedan and set out from Vicksburg, Miss., on a whirlwind tour of Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon and various Utah points in between.

The Burcombes' idea of a family vacation was fairly typical of most Americans visiting Utah in the 1960s, when vacations were not so much the destination as the experience of traveling there and back.An Arab oil embargo and deregulation of the airline industry in the 1970s changed all that. Americans now want to get to and from their destinations as quickly as possible.

While most states shifted their tourism campaigns to adjust to changing consumer demands, "Utah did not make that shift, or has been slow to make that change," says Dean Reeder, director of the Utah Travel Council.

"In the past, we have bragged that you could come to Utah and see Bryce and Zion and Grand Canyon all in one day. And they did. Their average length of stay was 0.7 days."

Getting tourists to stay longer - and spend more while they are here - is one reason state travel officials have scheduled 14 public hearings across the state. They want local elected officials and tourism directors to think in new directions and to incorporate bolder marketing ideas.

And they want to develop a state tourism master plan that reflects 1990s destination tourism, not the "windshield tourism" that characterized the 1960s when gasoline was cheap and interstates a futuristic dream.

On Friday, Travel Council officials hosted tourism officials from Salt Lake and Tooele counties at the downtown Hilton Hotel to allow them an opportunity to discuss concerns and brainstorm potential solutions. It was the seventh community meeting held thus far.

In Utah, tourism is a $3.27 billion industry that employs 66,000 people. In a videotaped message to participants, Gov. Mike Leavitt called tourism "a foundation piece of our economy."

But annual tourism growth rates of more than 10 percent in the 1980s and 7.1 percent so far in the 1990s has taxed the ability of small communities to meet the basic needs of tourists. Phrases like overcrowding, overburdened infrastructure and resource protection are now commonplace in areas that once welcomed tourist dollars at all costs.

The state's tourism master plan, now 40 percent complete with completion expected in about a year, will address basic strategies on how to fund infrastructure needs, how to close the gap between peak summer and winter seasons and how to improve marketing efforts to get tourists to stay longer and spend more.

The state has made progress in that area in recent years. The average length of stay is now up to about four days per tourist. But windshield tourism continues to dominate much of Utah tourism.

"Basically we are asking two questions," Reeder said. "What is your vision for an improved tourism industry, and what are you willing to do about it?"

As Reeder and others from the Travel Council crisscross the state, they are hearing the same themes over and over. The loudest complaint seems to be how tax monies raised from the taxation of rooms, rental cars and meals are spent.

By law, two-thirds of the money raised from tourist taxes on hotel rooms, rental cars and restaurant meals must be spent on promoting tourism. In the meantime, rural counties who are hosting the tourists are strapped for cash to repair roads, provide emergency services and improve sewer systems being overburdened by floods of tourists.

"Funding is a common thread," Reeder said. "They want more money for tourism development, but they do not want to raise taxes or create new ones. They want to see a redistribution of existing taxes, particularly as we shift to destination tourism and the infrastructure demands that creates."

With counties pushing hard to relax restrictions on how they spend tourism tax dollars, Reeder said reforms could be presented to Leavitt later this fall and legislation introduced in the 1995 Legislature.

The other thing Reeder has noted from the public hearings is that local officials tend to undervalue their own tourism assets. "The visitor places a much higher value on those assets than the locals do," he said.

For example, Reeder hears stories about tourists being discouraged from visiting the Great Salt Lake. "The locals see it as a dirty, smelly place and they don't go there. And they often talk visitors out of going. But visitors do want to go there, it's something they have always wanted to see."

Similar attitudes persist among locals in the San Rafael Swell and Bryce Canyon areas. "Sometimes you just don't appreciate what you have in your own back yard."