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Utah governor to ask lawmakers for $22.5 million in tourism funding

SALT LAKE CITY — After a historic ski season and near-record tourism revenue last year, leaders in Utah are hoping to continue the momentum in the new year through an aggressive marketing campaign aimed at increasing the state's visitor and recreation profile.

As the 2018 Utah Legislature officially gets underway, Gov. Gary Herbert and others are pledging to grow one of the state's top economic drivers — tourism.

Tourism marketing generates significant economic benefits for the state, Herbert said, with $8.4 billion in tourism dollars spent in 2016, generating nearly $1.23 billion in state and local tax revenues.

Noting that funding for tourism marketing will be voted on during the new session as part of the budget process, the governor said he will recommend the appropriation of $22.5 million to the Tourism Marketing Performance Fund, which will include specific emphasis on promoting rural areas of the state.

Herbert said key opportunities involve Utah’s 43 state parks, which compare with national parks in other states.

"We need to start pushing people into our state parks and other recreation areas in the state," he said. "We did a great job on the 'Mighty 5' (campaign); we ought to talk about the 'Mighty 43.'"

Some rural communities are developing strategies to expand their tourism economies through a Utah Office of Tourism “rourism” initiative, explained Vicki Varela, director of the state tourism office. Last fall, the tourism office launched the Utah Red Emerald initiative — a strategy to sustain long-term growth, she said.

It is a framework for Utah’s tourism economy to focus on marketing to the highest-quality visitor rather than quantity — people who stay longer, spend more money, and engage with the local communities, Varela said.

"It's a rare, refined experience that differentiates us from all our competitors," she said.

The initiative also focuses on community-led tourism development, Varela added. The office's destination development team is working with local communities to determine the types of travelers they want to attract and how tourism fits within the community’s economic development plans, she said.

Tourism dollars save Utah residents significant sums each year, Varela said.

"If we didn't have the tourism economy, every household in the state would have to generate $1,200 more in tax revenues," she said. "It's a huge factor."

The state's reputation as an "outdoor recreation mecca" continues to grow, Varela said, providing Utah an opportunity to bolster its economic strength in a way that can be prosperous for years to come.

"We're targeting continued increases over the next several years," she said. "We are targeting to generate $1.4 billion in tourism-related tax revenues by 2020."

Incremental tax revenue growth of approximately 3 percent will be the annual target in the years ahead, Varela added.

Meanwhile, the state's winter recreation industry received a big boost with the most recent winter storm that dumped significant amounts of "the greatest snow on Earth" in the mountains along the Wasatch Front and throughout the Beehive State.

Despite a relatively slow start to the ski season, industry leaders are optimistic that Utah could have another strong winter season after three consecutive record-breaking years.

"The snow-making teams have been working 24/7, and it's paid off," said Ski Utah Executive Director Nathan Rafferty. "It just may not have been what we're used to, especially coming off the heels of a season where it snowed 800 inches last year."

Rafferty said 2017's "spectacular" ski conditions provided a "tailwind" effect leading into this season that helped bolster resort bookings in the early part of the ski season. If Mother Nature cooperates, there is still plenty of time to have another strong ski season, he said.

"We have the meat of the ski season left. We had this big storm last weekend, and we've got another one on tap (predicted this week). I think we're going to be in good shape," Rafferty said. "Will it be numbers like we had last year? I doubt it, but last year was the third all-time record in a row. If we get even close to that, I think we'll be super stoked."