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SALT LAKE CITY — That Zion National Park anticipates record crowds this Memorial Day weekend should come as no surprise considering Utah's steady and unprecedented growth in tourism.
Travelers to the Beehive State spent a record $7.98 billion in 2014, driven in part by the millions of people visiting the state's five national parks, a new report shows.
Tourism spending grew about 5 percent compared to the year before, continuing a five-year span of record-setting growth, according to a study by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah.
Visitor spending exceeded Utah’s largest exports of primary metals and computers and electronics, making travel and tourism the largest "export" industry in the state, the report says.
All those visitors generated a 10 percent increase in tourism-related jobs in the state the past five years and 3 percent in the past year, and pumped $1 billion into state and local tax coffers.
"Utah’s strong travel and tourism industry is due in large part to the state’s geography, climate and natural amenities,” said Juliette Tennert, Gardner Policy Institute director of economic and public policy.
Skiers and snowboarders are drawn to the state's 14 resorts during the winter, while state parks, national parks and monuments, and other scenic areas attract tourists in spring, summer and fall, she said.
"We offer a large variety of opportunities in our state, which is cool," Tennert said.
Last year, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands and Capitol Reef national parks had a record 8.2 million total visits. And with the National Park Service celebrating its centennial this year, and first quarter visits already up 10 percent, 2016 could be another record year.
Memorial Day weekend marks the beginning of the traditional summer season at Zion and is typically its busiest time of the year. Last year, 71,000 people toured the park, and it expects to exceed that this year, according to Superintendent Jeff Bradybaugh.
Tourism in Utah grew despite a down year in the ski and snowboard industry due to a mild winter with a below-average snowfall, the study says. Spending at winter resorts totaled $1.1 billion in 2014, down 9 percent from the previous season.
"The data in the report reflects the not-so-good snow season of the year before last. We've certainly seen a rebound this year," Tennert said.
The state launched dynamic TV and digital ad campaigns — "Find Your Greatest" and "Mighty 5” — in major cities across the country to attract tourists to Utah the past couple of years. The highly successful "Mighty 5" promotion led to an estimated 1.7 million trips to Utah and nearly $2 billion in visitor spending, the report says.
The Utah Office of Tourism released the "Road to Mighty" campaign this year highlighting the state's lesser known parks and scenic landscapes.
"Tourism is all about awareness," Tennert said. "I believe those sorts of efforts play a great role in increasing the growth."
Foreign visitors, too, continue flocking to Utah to ski, explore national parks and attend conventions, with most coming from Canada, China, France, Germany, United Kingdom, Mexico and Australia in that order. Visa card spending among Chinese visitors jumped 13 percent, totaling more than $1 million, in 2014, according to the report.
The study says domestic and international travel increased to record levels, both nationally and statewide, due in large part to a healthy economy and relatively low gas prices.
Based on a strengthening U.S. dollar, a downturn in overseas travel to Utah is a possibility in the coming year, thought Tennert said state officials are not necessarily seeing that.
Otherwise, U.S. gas prices are expected to remain low while the U.S. economy is expected to grow steadily, increasing opportunities for, and the likelihood of, more domestic travel, according to the report.
Contributing: Keith McCord