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MAPPING OUT THE FUTURE OF TOURISM

In 1970, tourism was a modest $200 million a year industry. Today, at $3.3 billion, it has become a major driving force in Utah's economy. But is that growth just too much too fast?

A report issued by the Utah Travel Council indicates widespread public concern over issues like tourist overcrowding, inadequate police and medical services, how to pay for the impacts caused by tourists to roads, water and sewer systems, and how to make those who play in Utah pay more for the privilege.The report is the result of 14 public meetings hosted by the Utah Travel Council as part of its development of a long-range strategic plan for statewide tourism. The goal was to "take inventory of where we are now and then decide where we want to be in the future."

When state officials asked that question of Utah citizens, they got an earful and then some. Rural Utah communities are overwhelmed with overcrowding, pressure on public services and an underdeveloped infrastructure.

And they are fed up the millions of people who play in their back yard but pay little or nothing for their impacts on limited local resources.

According to a preliminary report of the public meetings, several common concerns were expressed. Among the Travel Council's findings, Utahns tend to undervalue the attractions in their own back yard.

"Residents throughout the state place importance upon thriftiness as a personal value and very often do not value their attractions in the same way that visitors do. We offer them at a price that we would feel comfortable in paying and do not realize that visitors would be willing to pay more."

The finding also stated Utahns consider things like open spaces, quiet, culture and "red rocks" to be rather mundane, but these are the very things "highly sought by today's traveler."

A second common concern was an infrastructure inadequate to handle the crush of visitors. "Smaller counties, in particular, are not in a financial position to handle the impacts on their own and are looking to the state for assistance," the report stated.

Other possible ways the counties could improve their infrastructure is through low-interest loans and grant programs.

A related concern was the "widespread belief evident in all meetings that people who use the resources should pay for the privilege. This includes helping with any infrastructure cost that is related to enjoying a particular attraction, such as road maintenance, waste disposal, water and police protection."

Many of those who testified at the public hearings advocated toll booths and user fees.

Other concerns highlighted by the report included a perceived unfairness in the way the Utah Travel Council markets some areas of the state, but not others; the problem of keeping visitors in an area who otherwise simply drive through on their way to somewhere else; and the lack of development capital for those seeking to establish destination-based tourism.

Interestingly, participants in the public meetings were adamantly opposed to any new taxes that might rectify the infrastructure problems they are facing. "However, they might consider supporting selective increases where the benefits or revenues accrue directly to their interests," the report stated.

Among the specific recommendations that will be addressed in the master plan are the mitigation of tourism impacts through user fees, the imposition of resort or tourism impact taxes by rural counties, requiring a "recreational license" for users of public lands, an increased emphasis on Utah's pioneer heritage and an increased emphasis on ecotourism.

The governor's office ordered the development of a statewide master plan to better manage the explosive growth in tourism. Public hearings will also be held on the master plan once it is drafted.