Utah's tourism industry generated nearly $12 billion in visitor spending last year, and there are no signs that it's slowing down anytime soon, which is creating potentially new opportunities to experience the state, tourism experts say.

Preliminary 2022 data shows that last year's spending eclipsed the previous record of $11.7 billion set in 2019, though record inflation is partly responsible for that, according to updated data released by the University of Utah Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute Wednesday morning. This supported over 150,000 statewide jobs and generated an estimated $2.12 billion in tax revenue.

The institute is still crunching last year's numbers before a final report is released.

While visitation to Utah's national and state parks dropped closer to pre-pandemic levels in 2022, the state's ski resorts blossomed as a result of an early and long ski season and record snowfall in Utah's mountains. At least 12 of the state's 15 resorts broke visitation records, Ski Utah officials reported in June.

"This great snowfall definitely played into it, the record visitor spending," said Jennifer Leaver, a senior tourism analyst at the Gardner Policy Institute who presented the data Wednesday.

International travel, which was virtually wiped out by the global pandemic, remained behind 2019 levels in 2022. This typically accounts for as much as a tenth of direct visitor spending. However, Leaver said she believes it will be close to or back to 2019 levels as early as this year.

The new data left Utah's tourism leaders feeling confident after the industry was decimated by the COVID-19 pandemic three years ago.

How tourism aids urban and rural Utah

Utah's urban core continues to generate the majority of visitor spending. Davis, Salt Lake, Utah and Weber counties, combined, accounted for nearly 57% of the money generated last year, according to the institute.

This is perhaps most evident by the successes in downtown Salt Lake City, which the University of Toronto's School of Cities has tracked since the COVID-19 pandemic. Researchers there found that downtown activity in the winter and spring each ended up at 139% of pre-pandemic levels, the highest among 63 North American cities it is keeping tabs on. In fact, Utah's capital topped the list in five of the last six seasons.

The Institute notes Salt Lake City International Airport travel and Salt Lake County hotel occupancy rates are now starting to trend above 2019 levels. Airport officials said last week that they're on track for a record year.

"We're in this period of renaissance and it's super exciting," said Kaitlin Eskelson, president and CEO of Visit Salt Lake, adding that it appears Salt Lake is the next sort of mid-major city to be given national limelight.

She believes many visitors were surprised to come back to a "totally different" Salt Lake City after the pandemic because of its new airport, buildings and city programming that emerged during the pandemic. It's also close to many outdoor recreation opportunities.

"I think we're going to review this as historic for Salt Lake and I think, in a lot of ways, we're on the map in a lot of different ways — whether it's the convention side, the sports side (and) the major event side," she added. "I think the next 10 years plus is going to be our time to really start shining."

A crowd forms on Regent Street in downtown Salt Lake City to watch a street performer during the Salt Lake City Busker Fest on May 26. Downtown Salt Lake City has been more active over the past two years than before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to University of Toronto data.
A crowd forms on Regent Street in downtown Salt Lake City to watch a street performer during the Salt Lake City Busker Fest on May 26. Downtown Salt Lake City has been more active over the past two years than before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to University of Toronto data. | Carter Williams, KSL.com

But Utah's 25 counties outside of the Wasatch Front are also feeling this type of energy, says Natalie Randall, executive director of the Utah Tourism Industry Association.

Randall, who lives in Monticello, has a job that requires her to travel across the state, meeting with state and local tourism leaders and businesses to gauge their needs and concerns. It's noticeable in her San Juan County home, along the Uintah Basin and, of course, by the state's national parks and other outdoor gems.

"I think you feel it around the state," she said. "You're feeling that enthusiasm. ... The tourism industry really allows for entrepreneurs to stay in the area to grow their businesses."

That, in turn, helps the rural economy. Although there's more visitor spending along the Wasatch Front, Leaver points out that visitor spending output within the 25 other counties is about three times higher than the Wasatch Front. That means visitor spending has a greater impact on the economy outside the Wasatch Front.

She adds that the tax revenue generated by tourism goes into a whole host of things that benefit the state, such as its general fund. There are also new programs that send a portion of the revenue to the Utah Division of Outdoor Recreation for education programs and grants for new outdoor recreation projects.

In 2015, prior to a change in tourism tax collection and the creation of the division, the Utah Office of Outdoor Recreation was only able to provide grants to 15 projects in 11 counties with an average grant of about $27,000. The division sent an average of a little more than $176,000 to 92 projects scattered across 25 counties this year.

The shape of Utah tourism to come

The work to maintain the industry's strength is ongoing, trying to balance out business and the impact it may have on the environment. Vicki Varela, director at the Utah Office of Tourism, said there are initiatives in place to spread out tourists to different parts of the state and to get people to either visit new parts of traditional favorites or to visit them at different times.

Alex Goodlett sits beside a fire while camping in the Wah Wah Valley, Millard County, on Nov. 12, 2017. Utah is home to many dark sky parks.
Alex Goodlett sits beside a fire while camping in the Wah Wah Valley, Millard County, on Nov. 12, 2017. Utah is home to many dark sky parks. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

For example, Utah's many dark sky parks allow for more unique outdoor experiences during the least busy times of the 24-hour day. Tourism officials say they have also started nudging people to visit parks at different times of day or year instead of the normal rush times or seasons, so people aren't damaging the land or the experience.

"What we want the experience to be for everyone is exquisite — a sense of discovery, a sense of magic," Varela said. "We try to think about ways we can honor this need this access to these beautiful open spaces in thoughtful ways."

Meanwhile, tourism officials celebrated the return of Outdoor Retailer this year, which Eskelson said is as impactful as a symbol of Utah's outdoor strength as it is economically. The region continues to bring in major conferences that drive urban tourism spending.

Salt Lake City also hosted the NBA All-Star Game this year and there's a buzz behind the possibility that it will host the Winter Olympics, as well as bring in a new Major League Baseball or NHL franchise.

Nathan Espinoza catches as Chauncey Leopardi, who played Squints in "The Sandlot," waits for a pitch on the field where "The Sandlot" was filmed in Salt Lake City on July 20, 2013. "The Sandlot" is one of many films shot in Utah over the past few decades.
Nathan Espinoza catches as Chauncey Leopardi, who played Squints in "The Sandlot," waits for a pitch on the field where "The Sandlot" was filmed in Salt Lake City on July 20, 2013. "The Sandlot" is one of many films shot in Utah over the past few decades. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

The state is also finding new trends in tourism, which is starting to extend outside of the state's primary tourism draws. Pop culture is one of those, ranging from markers where famous movie scenes were shot in Utah to the mystery that is Skinwalker Ranch. Varela admits that she couldn't have ever imagined coming up with an event like the Paranormal Conference happening in Vernal next month.

It highlights exactly how tourism is evolving as much as it growing in the state.

"I think the outlook is optimistic," Leaver says. "I think people that forecast the tourism industry see this kind of strong and steady continual increase over time."