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Tourism industry in southern Utah struggles amid coronavirus concerns

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The Temple Leopards hoist the national championship trophy in the air at the Canyons Softball Complex in St. George after winning the 2018 NJCAA Division I National Softball Championship on Saturday afternoon.

City of St. George

SALT LAKE CITY — The day before the West High baseball team was supposed to travel to St. George for a tournament, Jayson Kisselburg, the head coach, got a call. The baseball team would not be allowed to travel due to concerns over COVID-19.

The East High softball team was actually about to get on the bus to St. George when head coach Tony St. Hilaire got an email announcing that their trip was canceled too.

All kinds of trips to southern Utah are being canceled amid concerns over COVID-19, a novel coronavirus which now has cases confirmed in 46 states and the District of Columbia.

“This is the most disruptive event that I can recall in the years I’ve been in tourism,” said Vicki Varela, managing director of Utah Office of Tourism.

This is the busiest time of the year for businesses in places like St. George, which rely on tourists flocking to the nearby national parks.

Kids from the Wasatch front drive down to play in sports tournaments, locals enjoy a weekend in Zion or Bryce Canyon, and international travelers also fly to Utah to enjoy its red rocks and canyons.

Tourism contributes about $9.75 billion each year to Utah’s economy, according to Varela. She estimates the state is most likely losing millions of dollars a day as people cancel their hotel bookings, don’t eat out at local restaurants, buy souvenirs, or purchase guided tours.

Trips across the country are being canceled, especially in high risk areas. The Global Travel Association estimated the virus could cost its industry $46.6 billion a month. Airlines have been cutting down or completely canceling international flights, and now they are beginning to reduce domestic flights.

“We’re waiting and watching to see what happens,” Jennifer Leaver, senior tourism analyst at the Gardner Policy Institute, said.

While the majority of visitors to Utah are from the United States, cancelations from international travelers could still have a big impact.

For example, Leaver said, visitors from China spent $130 million last year in the state. Although it’s a relatively small chunk of the entire tourism economy, if Utah loses just half of that, it would translate to roughly 900 jobs and $5.6 million in tax revenue lost.

“There will be some sort of economic impact, but how much just depends on how long the whole thing lasts,” explained David Cordero, communications and marketing director for the city of St. George.

Businesses aren’t sure how much tourism will be affected in the coming weeks. It depends on how much the virus spreads, and what measures state and local governments take in order to contain it.

What they do know, is that business is not going well right now. Varella at the Utah Office of Tourism said that hotels are currently reporting a 20% reduction in bookings.

“This looks like it could be the biggest crisis that the travel industry has faced in decades,” said Scott Cundy, co-owner of the Wildland Trekking Company, a business the leads hikes and outings in southern Utah and across the country.

Cundy explained his company is already receiving a lot of cancelations, and new bookings for trips are down.

At the Red Mountain Resort, a hotel and spa in St. George, cancelations are also rolling in. Tracey Welsh, the general manager of the resort, explained that they are still open for business, and taking extra precautions with their cleanliness standards.

“As a resort and a spa, we have a high standard of cleanliness already, but we might be a little more visible in our cleanliness efforts right now,” Welsh said.

They’ve put disinfectant around the hotel for guests and employees alike to use frequently, are urging employees to maintain a safe distance from others, and are wiping surfaces regularly.

If you’re sick though, all businesses are encouraging customers to stay at home. One solution that both Leaver and Varella recommend for those who want to support businesses is buying gift certificates to use at a later date.

Other than that, state and local governments may step in to provide some relief. The Small Business Administration announced it would offer low-interest federal disaster loans for those impacted by COVID-19.

Leaver is starting to think about lessons for the future.

“If anything, I think it will teach us to plan ahead,” she said.