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Tourism in Utah is still down but may change soon

(The Salt Palace Convention Center in downtown Salt Lake City is pictured on Monday, March 22, 2021. Annie Barker, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY – The tourism industry is booming in rural areas because of Utah and national parks, but recent reports show tourism in our major cities is still way behind. However, there are reasons to believe things may significantly change by the end of the year. 

Analysts at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute say people across the country are getting more excited about traveling, especially since nearly half of all Americans have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.  However, they say there are still a lot of questions about just how complete of a recovery Utah’s tourism industry will have. In rural areas, the recovery has already happened, but, hotel rooms in Salt Lake City are still about half-empty. 

Last year, hotels were just under 80 percent capacity.

At the same time, researchers report there are some things that will work in Salt Lake City’s favor. The city has a brand new international airport, plus a new convention hotel scheduled to open in 2022.

Utah Office of Tourism Executive Director Vicki Varela believes cities like Salt Lake, Provo and Ogden are doing a remarkable job attracting more groups and conventions in their long-term visitation projections.

However, she also said, “The challenge for us is in the short-term when there is so much uncertainty about festivals.”

Varela said there are still many travelers who don’t feel safe attending large conventions or events. 

“Some festivals are going forward, others are still uncertain.  These things make a huge difference in the urban economy,” Varela said.

Other analysts believe it’s not enough just to rely on tourist money coming into rural areas. Visit Salt Lake President Kaitlin Eskelson said nearly half of all money spent by tourists in Utah is spent in Salt Lake County. When the pandemic shut everything down, Eskelson estimated the state lost $357 million in revenue.

However, business is picking back up. She said they’ve been able to use grants to attract events that were originally scheduled to take place in other states, but strict COVID-19 guidelines prevented them from happening. 

For instance, The Association for Talent Development was supposed to meet in Los Angeles in August.

Eskelson said, “Just last month, they changed their entire plan and are now coming to Salt Lake.”

That group is expected to bring seven thousand visitors to Salt Lake City. Eskelson said their visitation projections are looking very good for the end of 2021.

“Our third and fourth quarters, especially, are looking really strong, almost like a normal year,” she said.