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Tourism officials: Utah is changing

Cars wait to enter Arches National Park in Moab, Utah.
Parker Malatesta
Cars wait to enter Arches National Park in Moab, Utah.

Following the boom in outdoor recreation that came as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, tourism spending in Utah is at an all-time high.

A panel organized by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah recently discussed the state of Utah’s tourism industry, which brought in nearly $12 billion in visitor spending last year.

The secret is out: Utah is beautiful and has a lot of fun things to do outside.

But it’s not just tourists making their way to the Beehive State to recreate. Jennifer Leaver, senior tourism analyst at the Gardner Institute, said it’s also partially driven by the population growth in recent years.

“A lot of population growth, 17% over 10 years," Leaver said. "We’re over 3.4 million residents here in Utah. Why is this important? I think it’s important because more people are coming here, and many are coming because we have outdoor recreation opportunities. And the newcomers are hitting the trails just as much as visitors. So you might see this at your trailheads, I know I have.”

A study using geolocation from phones conducted by Salt Lake City-based software firm Zartico found that over 70% of devices in the Cottonwood Canyons are residents. It also concluded that the share of canyon usage by Utahns has increased 20% since before the pandemic.

The overall increase in recreation is pushing the “sustainable tourism” conversation to the rest of the state, said Vicki Varela, managing director of the Utah Office of Tourism.

“We want to build out the visitor economy in a way that local residents are proud and welcoming of visitors, because the visitors are the type of visitors that will respect their local traditions,” Varela said.

She talked about an old memory of taking her kids when they were young on a hike to Delicate Arch in Moab.

“I will never experience that magic and there will never be as few people on that trail, as there were that day."

Utah may never be the same as it once was, but Varela said visitors are still enjoying the experience in their own way.

She said it’s time to think differently about visiting popular spots.

“Our strategies are around dispersing visitation. And that doesn’t mean don’t go to Arches. That means find a really inventive way to do Arches that may not have occurred to you. Go experience sunrise at 6 a.m.”

So what is the state doing to help? Leaver pointed to the transient room tax approved by the Utah Legislature in 2018.

“Which is a third of 1% every time somebody pays for an accommodation, and that could be a hotel, short-term rental, campsite, any kind of accommodation," Leaver said. "Also, when we rent cars we pay a motor vehicle rental tax. So mostly this is capturing our visitors.”

The revenue generated from that tax is then used to fund recreation infrastructure projects throughout the state. Leaver said in 2023 there are 92 projects earmarked across 25 counties being funded by transient room taxes.