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Here’s why Garfield County wants to increase visitation to Utah’s ‘Mighty 5’ during peak months

Dec 6, 2022, 2:14 PM
Hoodoos in Bryce Canyon National Park on Monday, Jan. 15, 2007....
Snow decorates the Hoodoos in Bryce Canyon National Park on Monday, Jan. 15, 2007. While droves of visitors pour into southern Utah every year to explore the state's "Mighty 5" national parks, one of those five is being left in the red dust, leading tourism officials to reimagine how and when they want to attract visitors. (Ray Boren)
(Ray Boren)

BRYCE CANYON CITY, Utah — While droves of visitors pour into southern Utah every year to explore the state’s “Mighty 5” national parks, one of those five is being left in the red dust, leading tourism officials to reimagine how and when they want to attract visitors.

While four of Utah’s five national parks broke visitation records last year, Bryce Canyon National Park was the exception. It drew in 2.1 million visitors last year, which was about a 44% increase from 2020 but also a 19% decrease from 2019.

As of August, the park was on pace to replicate 2021. With 1.3 million visitors through July, visitation was up by only 33,000 visitors from the same point last year.

“We actually did see a decent increase in the fall months, so September, October. It still wasn’t what it was pre-pandemic, but I don’t know if that’s honestly attainable,” said Falyn Owens, director of the Garfield County Office of Tourism.

In response to this, along with other factors, the Garfield County Office of Tourism commissioned a market capacity study to establish a “clear picture of the present visitor economy in the county,” allowing the office to plan growth and expansion opportunities within the county throughout the year.

The Garfield County Office of Tourism last week released the results of the study, which closely examined the costs and enthusiasm associated with expanding the “shoulder season” — November to March — which is defined as the off-peak time frame of the calendar year.

“During the stakeholder meetings and through survey data, it became clear that while there was interest in year-round tourism, the preferred use of marketing dollars is to increase visitors during peak visitation months, including March and November. During these months, more businesses have staff capacity to serve visitors and therefore would like to see increased visitation during that time period,” Owens said.

The results of the study were derived from a survey sent to residents, business owners and stakeholders in Garfield County.

Owens said that during winter months, many businesses and restaurants close down, leaving little to no options for tourists looking to pay a visit to Bryce Canyon National Park or the other four other parks in the area.

Still, many who were surveyed responded enthusiastically about year-round tourism.

“A lot of our residents, they were very positive about tourism,” Owens said. “It was interesting that a lot of the residents thought it would be beneficial to the entire county to have year-round tourism.”

This can probably be chalked up to just how crucial tourism is for Garfield County’s economy.

Owens estimated that tourism makes up close to 80% of the county’s entire economy.

“It’s vital,” she said.

Despite the interest in year-round tourism, the county has decided to pour its marketing dollars into increasing tourism during peak visitation and shoulder months, when its infrastructure is better suited for the capacity of people descending upon the “Mighty 5.”

Owens added that they want to “be mindful” about building out tourism in winter months, as many businesses and stakeholders surveyed indicated barriers that would make doing so difficult, including staffing and housing issues, supply chain issues and the lack of services for guests.

“A lot of our employees are kids that live here, that go to college in the winter and come back in the summer and that’s a big piece of our workforce. It’s unique,” Owens said.

According to the study, the county was given recommendations for the next steps. These recommendations include:

  1. Building out Garfield County’s summer months and expanding those months to include March and November.
  2. Beginning the process of establishing partnerships with businesses, tourism and the state to increase facilities and capabilities to welcome year-round staff and tourists.
  3. Educating Utah residents and surrounding states about Bryce Canyon National Park.
  4. Aligning and leveraging internal and external efforts and resources to achieve regionally significant impacts around tourism and economic development.
  5. Creating a Garfield County Office of Tourism booking portal to establish both data collection and promotional opportunities.

Owens hopes that these recommendations can eventually lead to the county building out its winter tourism.

“We’ve kind of partnered with our economic development office on some of this and I’m hoping that together, we can find people that want to work year-round. That could bring in other jobs and that could also help elevate the tourism economy in the winter months,” Owens said. “Hopefully we get to a point where we can really build that out (winter tourism) in the right way.”

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Here’s why Garfield County wants to increase visitation to Utah’s ‘Mighty 5’ during peak months