Pandemic hits Utah tourism industry hard

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ST. GEORGE, Utah (AP) – Springtime hit Bryce Canyon with a cold shoulder.

In what is typically the coldest of Utah’s five national parks, warming weather usually blossoms with opportunities for adventure and exponential economic growth as people flock to the world-renown red rock hoodoos and dense wood.

But not this year.

Lance Syrett, General Manager of Ruby’s Inn in Bryce Canyon City, leads one of the hardest-hit businesses in a tourism industry hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Personally, I had to go to the guy who helped train me when I started in hotels in 2003 and lay him off,” Syrett said. “You know, that broke my heart because he’s committed to this business and we consider him part of the family. And we had that story over and over again with a lot of our good people.”

Even with government assistance, Ruby’s Inn lost 46% of its revenue this year.

“Covid is still killing us. No one is being impacted more than tourism because we are selling ‘non-essential travel’ when the government and authorities are telling people not to do ‘non-essential travel’,” Syrett said.

The pandemic devastated Utah’s tourism industry, on which the state relies for business profit and tax revenue. In 2019, visitors spent a record $10.06 billion in the Utah economy, generating over $1.34 billion in tax revenue, official data shows.

But national park visits, in particular, were down 25% compared to the unbridled trend of millions of visitors seen in recent years, according to data from the University of Utah.

But what about the coronavirus pandemic impacted Ruby’s Inn and other gateway community hotels so significantly?

The lack of international tourists.

In an average year, international visitors comprise up to a quarter of all national park visitors and tend to stay longer as well as spend more money compared to international visitors, University of Utah Senior Tourism Analyst Jennifer Leaver said.

And though domestic visitation to some Utah national parks increased in the late summer, it’s not enough.

“International and out-of-state visitor spending creates economic impact in Utah as it contributes outside dollars to our state economy. In-state Utah visitor spending (e.g. Salt Lake residents spending money in Springdale) does not create economic impact, but rather recirculates Utah money within the state economy,” Leaver wrote in an email.

The impacts of this year on the tourism economy will be lasting.

“We are projecting that it will take several years to fully restore the Utah tourism economy,” Utah Office of Tourism Managing Director Vicki Varela said.

Working in the tourism industry is all about numbers. How many visitors are coming, how long they are staying and how much money they are spending – numbers like those are all vital to survival for small businesses and public servants alike.

So how much did 2020 deviate from the norm?

From March to September, international deplaned passengers at Salt Lake City International Airport decreased by 85.5%, Leaver said.

In her report published in September, Leaver showed that visitors spend the most money on hotels in national parks resulting in about $431 million spent on lodging in 2019. While 2020 numbers are not available yet, many hotels have reported a significant decrease in visitors and spending.

About 141,500 Utahns work in the tourism industry, or did, in 2019.

Over 30% of the usual international visitors come from Canada, with China and Germany trailing behind. The Canadian border has been closed since March 18 and remains closed through nearly the end of the year.

The state office of tourism spends over $22 million a year on marketing and operations to bolster the economy. Next year’s budget, however, relies on $8 million of CARES Act funding to keep up.

Hotelier’s saving grace this year was in transient room tax, a 4.25% charge added to any hotel room or lodging stay in Washington County. About half goes to marketing and the rest goes to support tourism-related infrastructure and activities.

“We took one of the most significant drops in the beginning and came back up in one of the most significant ways, to the point where August was a record-breaking collection month for transient room tax,” Greater Zion Convention and Tourism Office Director Kevin Lewis said.

The annual budget for Greater Zion is $8.5 million and is dropping to $8.25 million next year. All of the budget comes from transient room tax.

Washington County Commissioner Dean Cox said they predicted a $2 million deficit at the beginning of the year. While the late-summer boom has kept the economy afloat, it’s rare to find a business or agency not in the red this year.

What does a 46% loss in revenue mean to Ruby’s Inn, exactly?

It means layoffs, delay of new equipment and furniture, keeping up with what demand exists with fewer resources and employees and now, extra supplies to keep up with CDC recommendations.

“Yeah, it’s not cheap trying to comply,” Syrett said. “I wish there was somebody sitting there with a big old check at the end of the rainbow, and we’ve gotten our checks from the government and whatnot, but man, it’s still not enough.”

Syrett as well as most of the tourism industry in southern Utah makes most of their profit in the summertime. Because of the lack of visitors, however, Syrett has had to drop his rates to be competitive, which means that even though he might fill his hotel, he’s only making half the profit he would in a normal year.

“There’s kind of a day in April, where finally we stop bleeding cash and we start making cash because we made it through the wintertime. And that day never happened,” Syrett said.

Tour companies and providers, like LeBus, have also seen nearly all of their tours canceled and lost up to millions of dollars.

Dennis Copyak, vice president and owner of LeBus, said last year they did about 500 national park tours. This year, they did six.

“We’re moving forward with all the customers we have,” Copyak said. “It’s pretty ugly to look out my office window and see 90 buses parked.”

In all, the company will have lost 15% of its revenue this year, a deficit of $10 million.

Hoteliers across southern Utah have felt the wrath of COVID-19, even the biggest park in Utah – Zion National Park.

Breck Dockstader, president of Cliffrose Lodge and Gardens in Springdale was hit with one million dollars worth of cancellations in the spring.

“A lot of that million dollars was inbound travel from Europe. There have been years where we had an 80% occupancy of foreign travelers. You can’t understate the value of European travelers,” Dockstader said.

But there was one saving grace for Utah and hoteliers – Californians.

In response to the complete cessation of international travelers, Utah tourism industry leaders shifted their marketing toward domestic crowds in hopes of making up the deficit.

Syrett, who is the chair of the state board of tourism development, said finding a marketing strategy was difficult.

“You don’t want to be insensitive, and you don’t want to be wasting money either. So if people are not going to travel, then why spend millions of dollars promoting it?” he said.

Greater Zion launched the “Find Your Space” campaign stressing that Utah was still beautiful, still had wide-open spaces and people could spend their newfound time discovering their own backyards, and it worked.

“We didn’t force-feed anything, we just said we’re here and it’s beautiful,” Lewis said. “You can keep some sort of normalcy in your lives.”

In 2019, 11% of all domestic tourism came from California, but locals anecdotally think this year has far surpassed that.

Whether it was the wildfires, the pandemic or ease of access, owners like Dockstader is grateful the Californians came to southern Utah this summer.

“Without L.A., we wouldn’t have climbed out of it like we did,” he said. “October was the best month we’ve ever had. It didn’t make up for the loss, but we’re pacing to break even.”

While so much of the loss has been made up by Californians, domestic crowds are very different than what locals are used to.

Zion rangers said the same thing this season, as graffiti rates skyrocketed and vandalism devastated the park. Officials think this is due to an increase in spontaneous trips and a lack of planning or education on what is the proper conduct in the park.

“We have seen a demographic shift in a way they never have before,” Zion Forever Communications Manager Zach Almaguer said.

Wells, as well as many park officials, said the way to combat overcrowding and changing group makeup is education.

“I don’t think we’ve seen a point where we’ve had too many visitors but we can definitely do better in helping them understand how to spend their time in the park,” Wells said. “It’s hard to make the case of not wanting people to come. It’s getting people out in nature, only good can come from that.”

Arches had to close an unprecedented amount of times this year due to overcrowding in the parking lots, a problem that’s not new to the park. However, this year there were exponentially more individual cars carrying a few people versus a tour bus carrying dozens, causing a lot of this congestion.

Looking forward, Utah leaders are grappling with the potential return of international crowds in addition to the now bolstered domestic crowds, including revamped public transportation to combat traffic.

“How do we change the culture from car-centric ideals to a public transportation mindset?” Utah Clean Cities Executive Director Tammie Bostick said of their EV Zion shuttle project.

While Varela with the state office of tourism thinks it will take time to recover from the effects of coronavirus, many areas are already showing signs of normalcy.

September and October saved many businesses in Springdale and other gateway towns where national parks achieved record levels of visitation with up to a 30% year-over-year increase, official numbers and Leaver show.

“These visitors are spending more money even if there’s less of them. That was somewhat unexpected,” Springdale chamber of commerce, Zion Canyon Visitor’s Bureau President Nate Wells said. “Being able to stay open is economic stimulus for us.”

Half a million people came to Zion in October, shattering “normal year” records. Officials at Arches National Park said they had the busiest fall on record, and even Capitol Reef National Park broke it’s September record.

More people in the late summer meant many businesses will nearly break even this year and transient tax collected will nearly be enough for normalcy.

Cautious optimism is creeping over a tourism industry that is slowing down from a tailspin this year. While owners like Dockstader are not “banking” on a large influx of international visitors in 2021, they are planning for something seemingly more normal.

“As people get vaccinated over the next six months, we are optimistic they will be inspired to travel again. It will be important for us to have a robust marketing strategy to restore our industry,” Varella said.

And Syrett is ready for the new year.

“I’m having a hard time right now. But when the time’s right, we’re gonna be here and what a better place to come and social distance, The national parks and Utah were kind of built for that. I always like to say that we were social distancing before it was cool up here,” Syrett said.

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K. Sophie Will is the National Parks Reporter for The Spectrum & Daily News through the Report for America initiative by The GroundTruth Project

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