Estimated read time: 6-7 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — If you're worried about overcrowded national parks in Utah, Falyn Owens says come on down to Bryce Canyon National Park.
There are plenty of vacant rooms, empty restaurant tables and, of course, scenic views to go around, says Owens, the executive director of the Garfield County Office of Tourism. Since that might not be the case at nearby Zion National Park, Garfield County tourism leaders are looking at a new promotion boasting zero-minute wait times into the park.
"We've got plenty of capacity," she told KSL.com on Wednesday.
Garfield County tourism leaders also want Utah to consider tweaking its super-successful "Mighty 5" national park advertisement campaign to brand national parks and the communities around them individually. It's why Owens and Lance Syrett, the resort general manager for Ruby's Inn — located in Bryce Canyon City — and a county board tourism member, traveled up to Salt Lake City this week to meet with state lawmakers about this issue.
Their concerns come as Bryce Canyon continues to struggle to recover from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. While four of Utah's five national parks broke visitation records last year, Bryce Canyon National Park was the exception. It drew in 2.1 million visitors last year, which was about a 44% increase from 2020 but also a 19% decrease from 2019.
It's currently on pace to replicate 2021. With 1.3 million visitors through July, visitation is up by only 33,000 visitors from the same point last year. So, Owens and Syrett are looking at ways to draw people back to Bryce Canyon like the successful "Mighty 5" campaign initially did almost a decade ago.
"We're a part of the 'Mighty 5,' we just don't have the same problems as the 'Mighty 5,'" Syrett said.
The blessing and curse of the 'Mighty 5'
The Utah Office of Tourism started the "Mighty 5" campaign in 2013, advertising Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Zion national parks to the world. Visitation soared to unprecedented levels in the years since, though 2021 was a beast of its own. A record-breaking 11.3 million people visited the five parks last year.
Though good for the tourism economy, which is important for many southern Utah cities and towns, this surge in visitation ultimately led to new ideas to deal with overcrowding, such as Arches' timed-entry pilot program and a permit lottery system to complete the Angels Landing hike at Zion National Park. It also led to the creation of "Forever Mighty" and the shift to promoting state parks and other recreation areas over national parks to help avoid future overcrowding.
Syrett says, sure, overcrowding became an issue at parts of Zion and Arches, but it really hasn't been the case everywhere — especially not at Bryce Canyon the past few years.
"If you're in Garfield County, you think it's the greatest thing that ever happened," Syrett said of "Mighty 5," adding that Garfield County's economy essentially lives and dies on tourism. "The 'Mighty 5' branded all the national parks together and raised the profile of all the national parks. It was extremely successful, (but) the problems in this park and that park, because we're all together now, it becomes everyone's problem."
A decline in visitation
Bryce Canyon's situation is likely the result of several factors, according to Syrett and Owens. First, they note it's the "most alpine" of Utah's national parks, meaning that it does have a more noticeable winter offseason compared to Zion National Park. Second, record gas prices and inflation likely impacted anyone seeking to head out to the park this spring and summer.
But the region also relies heavily on international travel, which accounted for nearly half of all visitation during the park's busiest years before the pandemic. With many COVID-19 restrictions and uncertainties still in place last year, international travel didn't return and there wasn't enough domestic travel to cover the deficit.
International travel remains stagnant this year because of many factors, including high airline prices and even the drop in the euro's value. In fact, state tourism experts don't believe international travel will fully recover for a few more years — more bad news for Bryce Canyon.
There are some exceptions. Owens says it can still get busy during holiday weekends, especially in the summer. Generally speaking though, visitation hasn't recovered from 2019 levels.
That said, national park visitation is down across many national parks across the country and Utah is no exception, says Vicki Varela, the managing director of the Utah Office of Tourism.
- Zion National Park's 2.9 million visitors through July is down 6% from last year
- Capitol Reef National Park is down 12% from last year
- Canyonlands National Park visitation is down nearly 16% from last year
- Arches National Park visitation is down 21% from last year
It's still too early to tell why this is the case. It could be because of the global economic factors, fewer tourism ads, or that 2021 was only a post-pandemic fluke. In Arches' case, it's also too early to know if the pilot program affected visitation.
Whatever the case may be, Garfield County tourism leaders believe it means there's still plenty of visitation to go around.
"Maybe three or four years ago, there was this narrative that there was overcrowding, so stop the national parks (advertising). Now we're coming back and saying, 'Hey, we need to promote the national parks again," Syrett said.
Tweaking the 'Mighty 5'?
Owens and Syrett want to break the myth that all parks are equally impacted by overcrowding, which is at the center of their proposed campaign. It's difficult to do that when other "Mighty 5" parks have problems, they say.
This is why they want "Mighty 5"-like advertising for Bryce Canyon that's different from Zion or Arches national parks. This could also allow Garfield County to plug in other nearby outdoor treasures like Scenic Byway 12 or Red Canyon.
"There probably is an opportunity," Syrett said. "I'm open to anything."
Varela told KSL.com that the Utah Office of Tourism is aware of the cracks in the "Mighty 5," which is also why they are starting to refocus their national parks advertising and interviews to point out there are Utah national parks that are not congested, like Bryce Canyon. It's an ongoing measure that is expected to continue for at least the next year.
She agrees that the biggest struggle of the brand is that all five parks are completely different, meaning a problem at one park isn't the same at another. But given its success, state tourism leaders don't want to ditch the "Mighty 5" for something completely different.
They are, however, looking to find ways to highlight what people should know when heading to each park because of the parks' differences. The change might be to promote Bryce Canyon's park and hotel capacity or advise travelers about the reservation system still in place at Arches through Oct. 3.
The point they want to make is that if there's an issue at one Utah national park, it may not be the case at another — and they're all worth visiting.
"'Mighty 5' is a huge and important part of what has built the Utah tourism economy," Varela said. "We just now have this pivot, where people need to understand the nuances just like what you would have with a family of five to say 'they're not all alike.'"