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Utah tourism officials approve millions to boost visitor numbers

(Photo Creidt: Paul Nelson)

SALT LAKE CITY – The Utah Office of Tourism is hoping $5 million in CARES Act money will help heal the wounds of the state’s tourism industry, which has been badly damaged by COVID-19.  The money is aimed at attracting more people from within the state to popular destinations, but some industry insiders say it will be easier said than done.

The money is being set aside for 72 travel-related non-profit groups in 25 counties.  Tourism officials say the money will encourage Utahns and out of state travelers to make safe road trips.

Southwest Adventure Tours Owner Jason Murray says marketing to people in nearby states is a good strategy since many people in Arizona and New Mexico already love being outdoors and southern Utah’s red rocks. 

Murray has been able to scrape smaller groups together and has started giving private tours within Utah’s national parks, but COVID-19 has essentially devastated his business.

“It’s probably an 80 to 90 percent drop in revenue compared to what it was supposed to be, or what we did the previous year,” he says.

Murray’s company took another financial hit when the governors of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut announced higher quarantine restrictions on Utahns in late June.  He says some travelers from the east coast are starting to come back, but he lost a lot of business when the order came down.  Murray had seven families who had already planned their tours.

“When that order came out, every one of them canceled their vacations because of it,” he says.

Other tour companies are hoping to get any visitors, at all.  Salt Lake Trolley Tours Owner Michael Williams says his business is essentially shut down.  He is known for offering 90-minute tours of downtown, including the Utah State Capitol Complex, but, his trolley and many of the buses that used to surround the capitol are all gone.

Williams says, “People do come to Salt Lake City through the airport, then they go to Yellowstone, and so on.  With their traffic down, frankly, I don’t know how you can draw people here that don’t already want to come.”

He believes Utah needs to focus on something else, namely, getting conventions.  However, he knows that’s not going to happen, any time soon.

He says, “There are none in the works, and that’s why we don’t have any business for the trolley, right now.”

He noticed a sharp drop in the number of tourists from countries like China and Korea well before the pandemic hit the U.S.  He says some tour companies had to sell their buses for pennies on the dollar.