SALT LAKE CITY — A slew of statistics that would be the envy of any tourism office are at the center of a new report on Utah’s tourism industry, though the sector has been battered by a public health crisis that’s left one of the state’s leading economic engines sputtering at the curb.
Record spending and tax receipts, more visitors than ever packing Utah’s state and national parks and a ski season that, even truncated by COVID-19, managed to almost shatter previous benchmarks, were highlights of the past year.
Before the curtain of pandemic-related restrictions dropped decisively in mid-March, Utah tourism and travel was racking up another set of benchmarks including over $10 billion in visitor spending, some $1.3 billion in related tax revenues, over 800,000 room nights booked just in Salt Lake City and an annual growth track north of 5%.
And while the novel coronavirus led to April shutdowns for Utah ski resorts, the Greatest Snow on Earth had already netted 4.4 million skier days — fourth most on record — and second-highest level of visitor spending ever.
The data is part of a new report from the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute and authored by Gardner senior policy analyst Jennifer Leaver.
“The coronavirus turned everything upside down,” Leaver said. “But before that, the overall trends were moving upward.”
Employment driven by Utah travel and tourism also saw continued growth last year with a record 141,500 jobs directly and indirectly supported by the sector, the eighth-largest jobs category in the state. Over 43% of those gigs are in Utah’s southwest “Canyon Country” region with the next biggest segment, 21%, employed in the ski resort-heavy “Northern Mountains” area.
When it comes to Utah’s top 2019 attractions, that fluffy powder tops that list as skiers and snowboarders spent a collective $1.55 billion last season, with national parks visitors not too far behind at $1.2 billion followed by conferencegoers and conventiongoers who dropped some $331 million in the state. The long-running and internationally popular Sundance Film Festival rounds out the list of top four Utah tourism hot spots and, while down a bit, still generated almost $180 million in spending.
Most of the state’s 2019 visitors were from domestic locations with international tourists making up about 8.4% of spending. Travelers from California, Nevada and Idaho top the list of U.S. tourists who enjoy Utah, with Canada, China and Germany leading the list of international visitors. Leaver noted that Utah is continuing to grow as an attractor of global visitors, with the number of international travelers deplaning in Salt Lake City having doubled since 2011.
Utah’s “Big Five” national parks saw 10.7 million visitors in 2019 up slightly from 2018 but over 27% since 2015. Measured on a July-June fiscal calendar, Utah’s state parks set a record with 7.4 million visitors, up over 10% from the previous year. The state’s most popular site destination was Dead Horse Point, which saw nearly 1 million visitors and experienced a massive jump over 2018, adding some 206,000 to its visit total.
Utah Office of Tourism’s $4.6 million in cooperative marketing matching funds delivered great returns in 2019, but some serious challenges lie ahead for the state’s tourism and travel industries.
Leaver noted that 2019’s record performances on nearly every travel and tourism metric was followed by a start to 2020 that appeared set to continue a trend of year-over-year growth that’s been in play for nearly a decade. But then COVID-19 happened.
“In early 2020 it looked as if Utah’s tourism industry was set up for its 10th consecutive record year — that is, until a global pandemic arrived and threw the industry into a tailspin,” Leaver wrote in a blog post about her recent research. “The COVID-19 pandemic hit Utah’s leisure and hospitality industry harder than any other sector.
“In April 2020, year-over-year leisure and hospitality job losses were 66,000, or a 43.1% decline. By August, the sector’s jobs were down 16.8% from last year — a little better, but far from ideal.”
In her report, Leaver included findings from the U.S. Travel Association that predict a 44% decline in total traveler spending in 2020, a 64% decline in international visitors to the U.S, and a 30% drop in domestic trips. The travel association estimates that neither traveler spending nor international visitor volumes returning to 2019 levels for another four to five years with U.S. domestic visitor volumes likely to experience a three-year recovery cycle.
While the recovery outlook, right now, appears bleak for travel and tourism, Leaver believes Utah’s better-than-most economy both before and amid pandemic conditions, could help drive a faster-than-most return to form for the sector.
“Business-wise, we’re just a high functioning state that is typically at or near the top in many economic indicators,” Leaver said. “In my personal opinion, the quick upward trend we’re seeing here, compared to other states, could help us get back to pre-pandemic levels faster than other areas.”