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S.L. County tourism booms

2005 was a stellar year, gains in car-rental and hotel taxes show

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Salt Lake County's tourism industry is taking off, with hotel tax revenues nearing Olympic highs and profits from the car rental tax finally making up losses lingering after Sept. 11, 2001.

The county figures show the region finishing out one of the best years for travel and tourism, said Scott Beck, chief executive officer of the Salt Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau.

In particular, revenues from the county's transient room tax on hotels are projected to peak at $8.3 million for 2005, up nearly 20 percent from 2000 and closing in on the $9 million record high of the Olympics in 2002, according to Lance Brown of the county auditor's office.

At the same time, room occupancy in Salt Lake County has gone up nearly 7 percent since 2004, with a 71 percent occupancy rate this year.

That steady stream of visitors sets Salt Lake County apart from many areas that suffered record lows in hotel occupancies after 9/11, Beck said. The world spotlight on Salt Lake during the Olympics was a major factor in that resilience, Beck added, drawing attention to the area that is still driving tourism numbers.

"The Olympics from a destination perspective really put Salt Lake on the top shelf of people's minds," he said. "It wasn't there before, and there was a definite boost from the Olympics."

Add to that the two biggest ski years in the state during the last two seasons, and Salt Lake County is quickly becoming a household name for winter vacations, Beck added. With four ski resorts in the county, Beck said the area's reputation within the ski industry is spreading and bringing a new volume of tourists to the county.

"That definitely translates into the valley. It's one of the indicators that the word is starting to get out," he said.

In addition to hotel revenues, Brown said the county is also hopeful that increasing revenues from the car rental tax mean out-of-state tourists are beginning to recuperate to pre-Sept. 11 levels. Those tax revenues dipped after 2001, hitting a low in 2004 of $7.38 million, but are now climbing again with a projected high in 2006 of $8.4 million.

"Restaurant and transient room tax did not suffer like car rental did. It's good to see that industry finally recovering," Brown said.

For Beck, that recovery is a sign that business travelers are once again coming to Salt Lake — an indicator that Salt Lake is a corporate destination — and families are also vacationing in Salt Lake for extended stays.

"Rental car indicates that tourism and the independent traveler is really coming to Salt Lake," he said.

And while the figures indicate more growth for the county's tourism industry, Beck said the state and the bureau are avidly recruiting more visitors. The county was recently chosen as the host for the 2007 International Rotary Convention, an event Beck said will rival the Olympics in terms of activity and visitors to downtown Salt Lake.

The city competed against places like Washington, D.C., and Cairo, Egypt, to host the global event.

"These were world-class destinations that we were up against," Beck said. "All of the buzz that's being created about Salt Lake being able to host the Olympics went a long way to show that we can host an international event."

Beck added that the state's efforts to ramp up tourism with a state logo will also bring more attention to the county.

"It's hard to tell people to come to Salt Lake until they know where Utah is. The more that Utah is a perceived destination for tourism, the better that translates to all the counties," he said.

E-mail: estewart@desnews.com