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Tourism conference looks at turning around drop in Utah visitation

Sep 29, 2022, 7:51 PM | Updated: Sep 30, 2022, 6:32 am

VERNAL, Utah — Tourism in Utah is down by a significant amount, and people from across the state are strategizing how to turn that around.

Industry leaders and players became tourists in Vernal this week, for a tourism conference that took a look at how to get people back to the Beehive State.

Jared Berrett, owner of Wild Rivers Expeditions and Bluff Dwellings Resort and Spa, faces the challenge of attracting visitors to a corner of Utah many have never heard of.

He said when people think of southern Utah, they think of Moab and St. George — not the community where he owns a hotel and tour business.

“Bluff, Utah is a very unique spot. It’s beautiful, it’s got incredible resources around it. It’s at the edge of the new Bears Ears National Monument,” he said. “We have a challenge there… we have to create the destination.”

He isn’t alone what he faces.

The Utah Office of Tourism said numbers show a 17% drop in visitation to Utah this year, compared to 2020. All five national parks saw decreases, explained state managing director of tourism Vicky Varela.

“People are really surprised by that,” she said, adding that many assume parks are operating at capacity.

The office talked about “Mighty 5 Myth Busting,” which Varela hopes will help people better understand the true situation at Utah’s national parks. She wants people to know that there is capacity at the parks, and that park visitation doesn’t necessarily continue to grow.

Every park experience is different, busting the myth that the Office of Tourism commonly sees where people think all five parks are the same. It’s a matter of planning ahead, Varela said, to have the right experience.

The office said another common myth is that all five parks require a reservation to enter, when in fact, only Arches has implemented a pilot timed entry system.

Beyond the myth-busting, the Utah Office of Tourism is looking at what other factors are at play in the decrease. Varela talked about how COVID-19 protocols in other countries and a weakened Euro are keeping international visitors away, with those numbers struggling to return to pre-pandemic.

Communities like the ones around Bryce rely heavily on international visitors — Varela said 50%.

“A lot of those areas are dependent almost entirely on the visitor economy,” Varela said. “And so, when people stop staying in hotels, that impacts everything in that county.”

That’s why everyone is racking their brains to reverse the trend, including Gov. Spencer Cox. Cox attended the tourism conference Thursday to give a post-lunch speech.

“It’s just so important to bring people in the same room, understanding what’s happening in different parts of our state, different parts of the industry — and then understanding how they can work together to help,” he said.

Varela also spoke to the crowd of attendees and said the Utah Office of Tourism intends to double down on marketing. She showed several marketing videos targeting different areas of Utah at different times of the year.

The videos will air on smart TVs and on social media.

She also dove into “Destination Development,” where local communities can tap into $3.7 million of federal funds toward tourism projects.

Applications for funding are open through Nov. 30, and the ideas for use range from economic and feasibility studies, to product development studios, to implementation grants to support projects in master plans.

“That is helping communities around the state that want to build out their visitor economy, figure out a strategic way to do it,” Varela said.

Barrett’s own business plan aligns with another strategy Varela talked about: Beefing up a campaign to market Southern Utah as a winter destination.

“It’s a great strategy to try to recruit and market for the offseason,” he said.

Having opened in 2020, Berrett said they’re a new business that hasn’t been able to stay open throughout the winter.

This will be their first year giving it a try.

“We are very bullish at going after that winter market, and we are going to be open for the first time throughout the entire winter season,” he said. “We’re very excited for that.”

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Tourism conference looks at turning around drop in Utah visitation