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Utah's post-vaccine tourism rebound is 'a tale of two recoveries'

Travelers walk near the baggage claim at the Salt Lake
City International Airport on Friday, April 2, 2021.

(Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)



SALT LAKE CITY — Rising U.S. vaccination rates are helping drive a resurgence in air travel and hotel bookings around the country but a full recovery for Utah's $10 billion-a-year travel and tourism industry is likely still years away.

And while Utah's one-of-a-kind natural assets helped buoy the sector amid COVID-19 conditions that drove unprecedented interest in — and travel to — outdoor destinations, the state's urban centers have been hit hardest by the pandemic and will be the slowest to recover.

A late-April economic report from Adobe Analytics found that the wide U.S. deployment of COVID-19 vaccinations combined with fresh cash infusions that went out to most residents through another round of federal stimulus payments is helping drive a travel surge.

The report found U.S. airline bookings in March were up 111% over the weeks leading up to the vaccine rollout in late 2020 and hotel bookings were up 50% in the same time period. Travel also picked up significantly compared to the first two months of the new year with flight bookings in March 2021 growing 57% over February and 79% over January, Adobe reported. Meanwhile, March hotel bookings grew 41% over February and 54% over January.

Salt Lake City's airport has outperformed the rest of the country throughout the pandemic. Even though March passenger traffic there was down some 38% over 2019 volumes, the facility easily outpaced other U.S. airports that were collectively running 48% under 2019's passenger pace.

Salt Lake City International Airport Executive Director Bill Wyatt said the positive numbers for his facility, which completed phase one of a massive $4.1 billion rebuild last September, are a little deceiving since the airport saw an unusual bump in connecting traffic due to changes at other hubs in West Coast cities.

But, he also noted that Utah's portfolio of premier outdoor recreation assets helped drive increased interest in travel to the state even before a substantial number of U.S. residents had received vaccinations. And, he expects the trend to continue.

"I think we're going to see a really strong summer here," Wyatt said. "We got a taste of it this winter ... and we were among the destinations that did relatively well in terms of air travel.

"It's not at all a big surprise. Our skiing, national and state parks ... this is a place people can come to and be outdoors and feel relatively safe. And I think that dynamic is definitely going to continue."

Travelers walk through Salt Lake City International Airport in Salt Lake City on Monday, May 3, 2021.
Travelers walk through Salt Lake City International Airport in Salt Lake City on Monday, May 3, 2021. (Photo: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

Forward-looking data in a recent report from the Salt Lake airport reflects airline operators are also bullish on the Salt Lake market and are currently scheduling as many, or more, flights out of Utah's Capital City this May and June than they did in 2019. That, however, appears to be an isolated U.S. air travel bright spot as domestic departures are, overall, likely to be down 20% to 30% in May and June based on current schedules released by airlines.

Utah Office of Tourism Managing Director Vicki Varela said much of the state's outdoor tourism industry bounced back from the worst impacts of the pandemic as those suffering the effects of months in home isolation sought respite and rejuvenation in the state's parks, wild lands and recreation areas. Now, she said the focus for her office is working to ensure that the state comes out of the other side of the public health crisis on a better, more sustainable path and not just return to the pre-pandemic status quo.

"I would say the most important thing we think about every day at the Utah Office of Tourism is not so much will we recover but how do we lead a recovery to something better for Utah communities and Utah visitors," Varela said. "We're in a position to be able to focus on ... the quality of the experience."

A long-running and wildly successful Mighty 5 tourism campaign that featured the state's five national parks helped put Utah on the global travel destination map at a level few anticipated. Now, the new Forever Mighty campaign is looking to balance continued growth with messaging that underscores stewardship and more connected experiences for visitors. And, it's one Varela says melds well with the vibe of many who sought pandemic-motivated outdoor refuge in Utah.

"The visitors we are trying to attract are people who are curious and who are respectful of the great outdoors," Varela said. "People that ... will have immersive experiences and who will be interested in having both intense adventures and educating themselves."

Varela also noted that while Utah's outdoor destinations are among the most popular on the planet, the state's overall travel and tourism sector is driven in large part by activities hosted in urban centers, particularly the once-vibrant convention visitor traffic flowing in and out of Salt Lake City and other metro meeting destinations.

"That's one area that is still quite distressed and will be for some time," Varela said. "Our urban convention centers are a super important part of this complex puzzle and they provide about half of our (transient room tax) revenues. And getting back to pre-pandemic levels in that arena could be several years away.

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

"Even though when people think of Utah's visitor attractions, 'Greatest Snow on Earth' and red rock country typically come to mind first, our convention districts are some of the hardest working parts of our visitor economy. And it's still going to be a long time before we see major conventions return."

In a new blog posting, Jennifer Leaver, senior tourism analyst for the University of Utah's Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, described Utah's visitor economy comeback as a "tale of two tourism recoveries."

"As travel season nears, there is much talk about swelling savings accounts and pent-up travel demand," Leaver wrote. "Although it's difficult to know how quickly vaccinations will lead to a complete tourism industry recovery, there is a clear discrepancy between Utah's urban and rural travel rebound rates."

Leaver published new data that reflects a broad disparity between tourist activity in Utah's rural environs versus Salt Lake City, the state's leading convention host. While room occupancy rates in and around the Zion National Park gateway community of Springdale are hovering around 70%-85% this spring and doing better than the same time period in 2019, downtown Salt Lake City hotel occupancy rates are in the basement and have been around 50% for the past two months.

Leaver also compared employment data for leisure and hospitality workers in Salt Lake City versus those in St. George, a city situated near several popular state and national parks. Workers in the St. George area whose jobs rely on tourism traffic have been back to pre-pandemic levels since last November and are even up over 2020 in the first three months of the new year, but the number of Salt Lake City employees of travel and leisure companies are still down over 8% from pre-COVID-19 levels.

Meanwhile, Utah's state and national parks are on a tear and showing no signs of slowing down.

Utah state parks saw traffic over three straight months, December 2020 through February 2021, exceed 2019 levels by over 100%. And while national parks aren't quite so booming, January traffic to those areas was up 70% over 2019 and some 41% over last January.

While stark differences currently separate Utah's urban and rural visitor traffic patterns, Leaver is optimistic the future remains bright for the city-centered visitor economy.

Tourists line up to enter Arches National Park in Moab
on Friday, April 16, 2021.
Tourists line up to enter Arches National Park in Moab on Friday, April 16, 2021. (Photo: Annie Barker, Deseret News)

"I believe that despite the risk-aversion and 'Zoom boom' generated by the pandemic, Utah's urban travel market has many things going for it, including a major airport remodel/expansion, a new convention hotel slated to open in 2022, and a stellar marketing team (Visit Salt Lake) that knows how and when to pivot," Leaver wrote.

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Art Raymond

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