Utah's record 11.2 million national parks visits and 11.6 million state parks visits helped propel Utah's tourism to a record-setting $10.56 billion in spending, albeit also through the help of inflation, University of Utah's Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute noted in a report published Wednesday.

The surge in tourism spending represents a 42.5% increase from 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic slowed down global traveling. 2021 also blew past the previous record of $10 billion set in 2019. That said, tourism economy experts expect that a follow-up report for 2022 will highlight new issues that emerged last year.

"Visitor spending returned to pre-pandemic levels in 2021 and remained strong through the first part of 2022," said Jennifer Leaver, the Gardner Policy Institute's senior tourism analyst, in a statement. "However, Utah's travel and tourism industry continues to face challenges including a service-industry labor shortage, the continued lag in international visitation and inflationary headwinds."

Inside 2021's record year

Tourism greatly suffered in 2020, not just in Utah but across the globe. The Gardner Policy Institute found that tourism spending in Utah slipped from $10.1 billion in 2019 to $7.07 billion in 2020.

Then came the "revenge travel," as the state started to emerge from pandemic-related lockdowns that dissuaded travel. Visitation to national and state parks surged to record levels, resulting in new worries about ways to handle crowded parks. Wednesday's report points out that ski resorts also broke records, as the 2021-22 ski season brought in 5.8 million skier visits.

These numbers, along with all other forms of tourism, turned out to be huge for Utah. The report states:

  • Tourism led to $10.56 billion in direct spending and $9.12 billion in additional indirect spending. The indirect spending is based on what businesses spend to account for spending from visitors.
  • The industry fueled 89,600 jobs, while indirect and induced spending supported an additional 41,000 jobs.
  • The direct and indirect spending resulted in $1.81 billion in total tax revenue.
  • Taxable accommodations sales reached $2.62 billion in 2021, a 53.3% year-over-year increase from 2020.
  • The urban tourism side is still rebounding. Salt Lake County's conference, convention and events sector, for example, brought in an estimated $115 million to Salt Lake County's economy in 2021, up 43% from 2020. However, conventions alone brought in close to $331 million in 2019.

While the spending is a record, it does come with a bit of an asterisk. The report adds that 2019 — and 2018 for that matter — would still hold the state's tourism spending record if those figures were adjusted to 2021 inflation. Inflation was so significant that 2019's $10.1 billion in spending equates to $10.82 billion in 2021 dollars.

Utah tourism after 2021

Visits to Utah's national parks tumbled a bit in 2022, falling by about 7% from 2021 figures. Vicki Varela, managing director at the Utah Office of Tourism, told KSL.com last month that last year's record inflation and gas prices, European currency devaluation and China's decision to prevent residents from traveling all factored in the decline.

Leaver wrote in the report that "concerns of a potential recession" in the U.S. also drove down travel. The exact impact of the decline will be outlined in a future Gardner Policy Institute report.

At the same time, 2022 may also be buoyed by urban tourism's slow rebound. The report notes that Salt Lake County's conference and convention delegate spending rose to $143.6 million in the first half of 2022, down just 2.7% from the first half of 2019. Urban tourism accounted for nearly half of all spending in 2019.

It also helps that the 2022-23 ski season may break even more records due to above-normal snow levels. Ben Cook, the marketing and communications director at the Utah Office of Tourism, said last week that the snow has been "perfect for the ski industry and tourism as a whole." The higher snowpack should also mean higher reservoirs levels for the summer recreation season.

The state tourism industry is also poised to receive a major boost this year from three Outdoor Retailer events and this week's NBA All-Star Game events. Yet experts still say overall tourism trends are difficult to pinpoint because the future of the economy still isn't very clear at the start of 2023.

"There is still all this uncertainty with general pocketbook tightening that makes it hard to project what kind of year we have ahead," Varela said last month. "If we (continue to have) wonderful surprises from Mother Nature, that will also be an influential factor."