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SALT LAKE CITY — Visitation at Utah's "Mighty 5" national parks took a slight tumble in 2022.
A little more than 10.5 million people visited the five national parks last year, down about 7% from the record-setting 2021 numbers, according to a KSL.com analysis of National Park Service visitation. While the numbers are well ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic-impacted 2020 levels, the 2022 figures ended up 2% below pre-pandemic levels in 2019.
Vicki Varela, managing director at the Utah Office of Tourism, said last year's figures ended up closer to numbers posted in 2017.
"(There's been) lots of roller-coaster stuff over the last couple of years," she told KSL.com on Monday. "It's interesting because there's a perception that all the national parks are overcrowded. The fact is that it really varies from park to park."
The same four parks that broke visitation records in 2021 — Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Zion — all experienced visitation decreases last year, ranging from -7% at Zion National Park to -19% at Arches National Park. Zion still ended up with its second-busiest year on record with almost 4.7 million visitors.
Bryce Canyon, the lone Utah national park that didn't set a record in 2021, experienced the only uptick among the five. Its visitation rose by about 12%, but it's still 9% below 2019 levels.
What's behind the overall decline?
There are actually several factors that likely contributed to the slight decline in visitation in 2021, in one way or another. But the state's ongoing efforts to spread out visitation to other parks in the state is likely not one of them.
Visitation to Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, which includes the struggling Lake Powell, dropped almost 10% from 2021, though, it still attracted 2.8 million visitors last year. Cedar Breaks, Dinosaur, Golden Spike and Natural Bridges national monuments and historic parks all experienced year-over-year visitation drops, among those tracked by the National Park Service.
Hovenweep and Timpanogos Cave national monuments experienced increases, though neither brings in large crowds. The latter drew in just under 156,000 people, representing a 27% jump from 2021.
Even visits to Utah's state parks are down. A little more than 9.6 million people visited state parks last year, per Utah Division of State Parks data updated through November. It would need about 2 million visitations in December to match the final 2021 total, which is a tall order. A little more than 325,000 people visited state parks in December 2021.
State tourism officials don't think people are tired of going to the parks. Instead, they believe a series of economic factors blended together to reduce travel last year, led by global inflation. Inflation sent gas prices soaring to record highs, impacting other travel costs over the summer, which is the busiest time period for all of Utah's parks.
Everyone's just been tightening their belts — and our industry ends up really feeling that.
–Vicki Varela, managing director of the Utah Office of Tourism
While increased gas prices impacted Utahns driving to nearby parks, as well as other Americans traveling to Utah, international travel suffered the most. Utah usually sees an influx of RV drivers coming from Canada, but high gas prices all over the country made that much less feasible, Varela explained.
Meanwhile, the value of European currency dropped last year, making it less affordable for people from European countries to travel to the U.S. The euro, for example, dropped from $1.22 U.S. dollars in May 2021 to as low as $0.97 by October 2022. It has since jumped back ahead of the U.S. dollar. China restricted residents from traveling out of its country because of COVID-19, too.
These different parts of the world are all major Utah tourism drivers.
"International travelers still haven't returned in high volume," Varela said. "We saw lots of research that said that people are going to stay closer to home, they're going to consolidate their travel plans. Everyone's just been tightening their belts — and our industry ends up really feeling that."
Trying to predict 2023
The past two years also show that the "Mighty 5," as powerful of a marketing campaign as it has been, is in need of retooling. Visitation trends are no longer uniform; they've been all over the place since the pandemic.
"We have five 'Mighty 5' national parks but we have five very different visitation patterns," Varela said. "That's why we try to really customize our marketing strategies and community engagement to the circumstances of each of those parks."
Marketing to the five parks may look different in the future as a result.
Garfield County already started this work for Bryce Canyon. Local tourism officials completed a market capacity study last month aimed at finding ways to get people to visit national parks year-round because tourism makes up almost 80% of the county's economy.
"It was interesting that a lot of the residents thought it would be beneficial to the entire county to have year-round tourism," Falyn Owens, director of the Garfield County Office of Tourism, said of the study.
This means "Mighty 5" campaigns for Bryce Canyon may focus on visiting the park in the quieter winter months, Varela explained.
It's still too early to know if Arches' timed-entry pilot program factored in its visitation drop because of the many other factors happening at the same time. The program has been renewed for 2023. Future campaigns for Arches may get people to visit the park at sunrise or sunset, instead of the busier middle-of-the-day times, as a way to spread out visitation throughout the day.
Still, it's anyone's guess on how 2023 will fare, state tourism officials contend. If inflation and gas prices continue to drop, it may drive people back to the national parks. But if there's a slowdown in the global economy, it may mean people put off traveling again this summer.
"There's still all this uncertainty," Varela admited. "It makes it hard to project exactly what year we have ahead."