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Southern Utah workshop explores ways to boost tourism

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ST. GEORGE — Tourists nowadays want more from their vacation dollar than beautiful scenery or rubber tomahawk souvenirs, Zion National Park Superintendent Marty Ott told a roomful of southern Utah business owners and others interested in selling the area to the world.

"Fifteen years ago people would pay a fee, look up a lot, and then go on down the road," Ott said during a workshop called "Tourism, Trends and Economics in Southern Utah" held Wednesday at the Dixie Center. "That's changing now. People want to look deeper at what a region has to offer. They want to test themselves. They want a challenge."

The workshop was one of many offered throughout the day during Washington County's Economic Summit, an annual gathering of business owners, community leaders, elected officials and others interested in promoting southern Utah.

Keith Griffal, former president of the National Tourism Council, said although 6 million people drove through St. George along I-15 last year, fewer than 200,000 of them actually stopped at the local Welcome Center. For a growing tourism market, he said, those numbers ought to be better.

"Most of the money you make here will come from the regional market," Griffal said. "In reality, a poor economy could be very helpful here because people tend to not travel as far."

While the overall number of visitors to Zion National Park last year was down by 14 percent over the previous year, said Ott, other numbers were up significantly.

"Our back-country travel was up 50 percent over last year's," Ott said. "And in 2000 it was up 30 percent over 1999."

Art galleries and other businesses in the gateway community of Springdale, nestled at the mouth of Zion National Park, also enjoyed a healthy year, with reports of double-digit increases in sales over the previous year, said one gallery owner.

The trend today for most park visitors, said Ott, is moving toward taking shorter, more frequent trips.

"That really puts this region in the captain's seat," he said. "If we're going to be successful in marketing this area as a travel destination, or a base camp where someone stays for several days, then we have to put provincialism aside."

Feuds or border wars between competing towns in southern Utah, such as the long-running rivalry between Cedar City and St. George, have no place in a successful tourism marketing plan, Ott said.

"We have to build a coalition and develop a marketing plan to make this region a destination spot," said Ott, adding representatives from the park, Springdale and Kanab will soon meet to develop such a plan. "We want to assure people the park, and every other business around here, is open year-round."

E-mail: nperkins@redrock.net