Take one longer-than-normal winter season, add a dash of road construction detours and mix thoroughly with plenty of economic uncertainty in Europe and Asia.
What you have is a recipe for a huge downturn in Utah's $4 billion tourism industry, at least according to dismal first quarter 1998 visitation statistics released by the Utah Travel Council."We're not worried at all," said Travel Council spokesman Ken Kraus. "Everything we're seeing points to a tremendous rebound in second quarter numbers. In fact, the year-to-date numbers (through the second quarter) in many areas have already surpassed last year."
That turnaround comes despite a horrible first quarter when visitation at Utah's state parks dropped 15.2 percent compared to the same three months in 1997. Visitation at Utah's five national parks was down 13.7 percent, and at national monuments and recreation areas it was down 14.7 percent.
Motel and hotel occupancy was down 8.7 percent, while the number of passengers going through Salt Lake International Airport was down 5.7 percent and the number of visits to visitor information centers was down 5.9 percent.
Late snowfall was one factor that deterred visitors, Kraus said. But even more telling was a variety of international factors from the economic crisis in Korea and Japan to high unemployment in Germany.
"We are seeing subtle shifts in international travel trends," Kraus said. "People (in foreign countries) are taking shorter trips, and they are staying closer to home. And a lot of that can be attributed to the economic uncertainty of those world markets."
But even those international trends are not as bad as they seem. At a recent international tourism trade show in Chicago, state officials were impressed by the unprecedented interest in Utah by tour operators from Italy and Scandinavia, and a growing interest from Eastern European countries. Interest from the United Kingdom, a traditional draw for the state, remains strong, Kraus said.
But the decline in German-speaking tourists is a concern. One-fourth of all international travelers to Utah come from Germany and Austria.
Tourism officials also agree Utah continues to be a hot commodity because of the Winter Olympics, as well as its growing reputation as a destination for adventure travel, which includes things like mountain biking, hiking, whitewater rafting and other extreme sports.
"We are seeing an increase in heritage tourism, in ecotourism, in the kinds of adventure travel where muscles are the main source of motivation," Kraus said. "But those are not showing up in the first quarter numbers."
Kraus' "don't worry" response to the statistical downturn is shared by tourism industry officials around the state. Arches National Park has already rebounded from a poor first-quarter showing to almost match last year's numbers through Memorial Day, and Marian DeLay with the Grand County Travel Council is predicting another tourism bonanza by the time the visitation totals are tallied at the end of summer.
At Zion National Park, the numbers of visitors through Memorial Day was up 3 percent, and businesses in neighboring Springdale are doing well. "It looks like another banner year in Springdale," said Mike Sepulver, sales manager for Zion Park Inn and a local Chamber of Commerce official.
That's good news if the rebound continues. But it could be disastrous if a 5 percent or 10 percent decline persists in a $4 billion industry. That could mean a drop in tourism revenues of $200 million to $400 million by year's end - money that would not be available for wages, purchases that would not be made, sales taxes that would not be collected and businesses that would not be expanded.
"Those (first quarter) numbers are early in the season, and they don't tell us a lot," Kraus said. "The second quarter numbers will be a much better indicator of where things are going in the industry."
Segments 1998* 1997 % Change
S.L. International Airport passengers 4,935,446 5,231,288 -5.66%
National park recreation visits 1 475,812 551,555 -13.73%
National monuments & rec. areas 244,432 286,651 -14.73%
State parks 721,231 850,416 -15.19%
Visitor information centers 2 77,144 81,958 -5.87%
Hotel/motel total occupancy 3 63.73% 69.77% -8.65%
*year to date
1 Visitor counts represent recreation visits only, and numbers have been adjusted for pass-through traffic
2 Welcome Centers and Council Hall
3 Source: Rocky Mountain Lodging Report. Represents a sampling of hotel/motel properties; occupancy rates should be regarded as estimates.
SOURCE: Division of Travel Development