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Coronavirus, Chinese travel restrictions already impacting Utah tourism

Gov. Gary Herbert, center, talks with Nathan Rafferty, Ski Utah CEO, and Vicki Varela, managing director of the Utah Office of Tourism, during Tourism Day at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, March 4, 2020.
Gov. Gary Herbert, center, talks with Nathan Rafferty, Ski Utah CEO, and Vicki Varela, managing director of the Utah Office of Tourism, during Tourism Day at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, March 4, 2020.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The spread of coronavirus is already starting to affect the Beehive State’s booming tourism industry, but local officials say there’s no need to panic just yet.

The Utah Tourism Industry Association Wednesday hosted its annual showcase event at the state Capitol touting the work of industry professionals and advocates across the state in growing Utah’s $9.75 billion tourism economy. This year, the event also included concerns about the impact of the growing health crisis resulting from the proliferation of COVID-19, believed to have originated in Wuhan, China.

In recent years, the Chinese have become the second-largest group of international tourists visiting Utah, second only to Canadians. However, since the coronavirus outbreak began, the Chinese government has restricted travel in and out of the country, directly impacting global tourism, including Utah.

Speaking in the rotunda, Gov. Gary Herbert said the increasing alarm surrounding coronavirus is warranted, but should be managed using a thoughtful, measured approach.

“Clearly the coronavirus is going to have a dampening effect on tourism travel,” Herbert said. “The uncertainty of it right now is really going to stop people from coming. We’ll have to see what happens over the next six months, but it certainly is not going to be a positive thing from the standpoint of tourism travels.”

He noted that on a local level, each state is developing its own plans to manage the virus.

“It’s not a matter of can we stop the spread, we can slow it down and we can make sure that we insulate ourselves so that we don’t get sick,” he said. “Common sense things of washing your hands, covering your mouth, doing the elbow bump like we’ve done in times past will help us slow down the spread.”

Megan Fox, manager of the Kane County Office of Tourism, talks to Gov. Gary Herbert during Tourism Day at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, March 4, 2020.
Megan Fox, manager of the Kane County Office of Tourism, talks to Gov. Gary Herbert during Tourism Day at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, March 4, 2020.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Herbert said that while the illness is a concern for travelers, including himself, he does not plan to stop altogether, but rather monitor the situation as it unfolds and respond accordingly.

“We do have plans to travel. We have trade missions; we usually do two a year. We have Canada, maybe south of the border, on our agenda as places to go. But that will be on a day-to-day basis,” he explained. “We have plans to go, but we can cancel those plans the day before we get on the airplane. So, we’re going to watch it very closely. We’re going to be cautious about it and careful, but we don’t want to stop doing what we’re doing because we’re very successful in international trade as a part of our economic expansion efforts.”

The Utah Office of Tourism reported that the industry was responsible for $1.28 billion in state and local tax revenues in 2018, according to the latest data available. But those revenues will likely be significantly affected in the wake of travel restrictions limiting Chinese visitation abroad.

“The coronavirus will definitely have an impact on the tourism economy,” said Vicki Varela, state tourism director. “Like any other major part of the U.S. economy, we are seeing the impact with canceled trips (and) canceled conferences. The real question for us is how long does this go on?”

In 2013, Chinese visitation was 11th among all international segments, she noted, but today Chinese tourism is the second-largest international group of visitors.

“On a typical day in Utah, almost any time of the year, you can walk over to the Capitol and see a Chinese visitor. They’re not here now. Travel has basically shut down,” she said. “We think that’s a good thing because we want everybody to be healthy and safe, so we’re all just taking this pause until we have good signals about it being healthy for people to travel.”

Varela said it may be months before analysts will be able to measure the financial impact of the reduction in tourist visits, but for now, the state will do its best to highlight the opportunities that still exist for people to enjoy Utah’s various recreational locales.

“We’ve got 44 amazing state parks. In other states, they would likely be national parks. So we have started marketing those state parks and we’ve been able to completely shift our growth,” she said. Visitation at Utah’s five national parks has increased about 3% per year over the past several years, she noted, while visitation at state parks has climbed 17% annually.

“Those are exactly the sorts of things that we want to do to distribute people to places that they may not have imagined,” Varela said.

Meanwhile, efforts to manage travel safety has become an even bigger priority at Salt Lake City International Airport. Communications director Nancy Volmer said plans are already in place to handle potential health emergencies if something were to become acute.

“If there’s any sort of infectious disease, an outbreak of an infectious disease, we have steps that we take. The staff is trained, especially in customs or in the TSA, to see if somebody is exhibiting symptoms of an infectious disease. (If so), they would take that person aside, call the health department (who) would come out to determine if they to be quarantined or not.”

She said travelers can visit the airport’s website for information on steps the airport is taking to provide a safe environment for passengers and visitors.