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Utah tourism unemployment at an all time high according to new report

(Downtown Salt Lake City, where industry analysts say hotels are still struggling for customers. Credit: Paul Nelson)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – The tourism industry is still struggling to find its feet across the country thanks to the COVID-19 epidemic.  A new report is showing how dependent Utah’s workforce is on tourism and some analysts have reason to be optimistic.  However, some industry insiders think things will get worse before they get better.

The report from seoClarity says 8.2 percent of all jobs in Utah are connected to tourism.  According to their analysis of the data collected by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, over 120 thousand people in the state work for the accommodation or foodservice industry. 

Their researchers say when the COVID-19 outbreak began, those industries accounted for one-third of all job losses, nationwide.  They find that unemployment in this industry is nearly 21 percent across the U.S., and it’s over 10 percent in the Beehive State.

This is a very different picture than what industry officials expected at the beginning of the year.  According to the Utah Office of Tourism, 2019 was a record-breaking year.  Visitors injected more than $10 billion directly into the state economy, and when analysts made their projections for 2020, things were looking fantastic.

Tourism Public Relations Manager Anna Loughridge says, “We were set up for another record-breaking year in 2020.”

Of course, the industry came to a grinding halt when COVID-19 reached American shores.  Restaurants were forced to either close or completely change how they served their customers.  Travel, especially international travel, dried up.  Hotel visits crashed.

Loughridge says when travel stopped, they expected to lose roughly $20 million every day in visitor spending.  Some “gateway communities” near state and national parks saw an 80 to 90 percent drop in occupancy.  However, in the past few months, Loughridge says visits in those communities have slowly crept up to almost normal.

“In June of this year, Springdale’s occupancy rates came up to almost 70 percent,” she says.

However, the same can’t be said for hotels in downtown Salt Lake City.  Lon Hurst is the General Manager of The Kimball at Temple Square, and he says visits are still way down.

Hurst says, “We took a hit on revenue that was just breathtaking.  In the first couple of months, we down to less than 20 percent or even 10 percent occupancy.”

The Kimball is normally full when The Church of Jesus Christ Of Latter-Day Saints holds its General Conference, but those aren’t being held as normal because of the virus.  He added, with Temple Square being closed for renovation, people aren’t visiting downtown like they used to.

“I’ve had people who were with me for years and years and years that I had to let go,” Hurst says.

Things have gotten worse for him in the past few weeks.  The number of new COVID-19 cases has spiked, which is making people more nervous to travel in any way.  He says customers have been canceling their reservations “left and right.”

“It could be a little scary, I’m afraid,” Hurst says. 

Other hotel management officials are also reporting huge losses.  The Horne Management Group oversees hotels in downtown, Park City, and southern Utah, and Vice President Roger Workman says visits to downtown likely won’t return to normal until conventions come back.