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‘Red Emerald’ plan looks to treat Utah’s natural tourism as the rare gem it is

An electronic sign indicates that parking at the Zion National Park Visitor Center is full on Thursday, Sept. 15, 2016.
An electronic sign indicates that parking at the Zion National Park Visitor Center is full on Thursday, Sept. 15, 2016.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s tourism strategy hails the Beehive State as a place of great beauty and wonder that is unlike anyplace else.

In its three-year Red Emerald Strategic Plan released Thursday, the Utah Office of Tourism aims to bolster the state’s growing tourism economy. The proposal offers responsible and sustainable methods that can be attractive to visitors and amenable to hosting communities.

“The red emerald strategy will establish Utah as an industry leader in responsible visitation, changing the way we market and manage our beautiful destinations,” said Vicki Varela, managing director of the state tourism office. “The strategy contains objectives drawn from months of partner and stakeholder engagement.”

The plan is named after a rare gem found in the Wah Wah mountains of western Utah — one of the only places in the world where red emeralds are located, according to the state tourism website. Also known as red beryl, the gemstones are found in Utah and New Mexico, but only grow to substantial size in Utah, the site notes. The stones are rare, distinctive and highly prized by gemologists, Varela said.

“It’s highly sought after, exquisite, rare. We made it the red emerald strategy because that’s exactly what we want the tourism experience to be in the state, both for our visitors and for the communities that host our visitors,” she said. “We want it to be rare and highly valued, highly sought after, unique to Utah.”

These attributes are the inspiration for the new strategy, she said, highlighting the distinctive, local qualities that are exclusive to Utah.

She said a critical element in the plan is advising travelers who have already booked their travel to Utah to do so responsibly. Expanding on Moab’s “Do it Like a Local” campaign, visitors can learn how to travel safely, while immersing themselves deeper into their destinations culture and surroundings, and visiting with great care for the natural landscape, Varela added.

Other components of the strategic plan include promoting well-prepared, year-round visitation, focusing on the quality of the tourism experience versus strictly growing the number of visitors, responsibly directing visitors off the beaten path and supporting communities that are interested in attracting more tourists in order to develop their destinations.

“One is a real priority on the quality of the visit, rather than the quantity of visitors,” Varela said. “So a quality visit is where people may stay longer, immerse themselves in everything we have to offer (and) not just bucket listing through our national parks.”

She said the goal is to help visitors have an experience of a lifetime that will encourage them to return over and over.

“Repeat visitors are the best visitors because they understand our fragile environment, especially in our red rock country,” she said. “They’re willing to engage more with local communities in the ways that work for local communities. It is about long-term responsibility that ensures that our citizens and our communities like having a tourism economy.”

She said the plan also includes strategies on dispersing visitation to more places around the state to limit overcrowding and environmental degradation.

“We have some communities that feel over-visited right now. An example is Moab. We have other communities that are hungry to welcome more visitors. An example is Carbon County. The community of Helper, in particular, is showing great leadership to become a really interesting tourism destination,” she said.

“The community of Price is also interested in welcoming more tourism. They have spectacular outdoor recreation vistas just outside the main community, so we’re helping them to create the products to have a welcoming Main Street and to encourage guides and outfitters to set up businesses there.”

She said her office is working with rural communities to develop their tourism potential, which can strengthen their local economies in the years to come.

“This is not something that happens overnight. It takes lots of community engagement, thought and care to figure out exactly what they want their want tourism to be as a component of their economy,” Varela said. “We’re not trying to make any community have tourism as their key economic driver. We’re trying to help them right-size it to their economic development goals.”