Stuart Johnson, Deseret News
Wil Faulkner VI gets ready to pull his son, Wil, on a tube on Utah Lake. High gas prices are keeping Utah vacationers closer to home.

Paying more for gas was expected to keep people home this summer, but the numbers of visitors at Utah's summer hot spots suggest that's only partly true.

Utah state parks are seeing 11 percent fewer visitors this year, according to the State Division of Parks and Recreation. On the other hand, ticket sales to the Utah Shakespearean Festival and Tuacahn Amphitheatre performances are way up. And Utah Lake bosses are thankful for overflow parking.

"We usually go to Lake Powell once or twice a year," Draper resident Dayna Simons said Friday after docking her family boat at Utah Lake. "I think we're cutting that one out. We're doing things closer to home."

Utah gas prices, which on Friday averaged a record-high $4.22 a gallon, were expected to tether many families near their homes.

Just under half of Utahns surveyed around Memorial Day weekend said they planned to scale back summer vacation plans, according to a Deseret News/KSL-TV poll by Dan Jones & Associates.

A Travel Industry Association report found that gas prices would result in shorter trips, fewer trips and less money spent while on vacation. The good news is, Utah has plenty of outdoor recreation — all part of a $5.8 billion a year industry here — within an hour's drive for many residents.

That said, some summer hot spots are doing well.

Ticket sales are up 20 percent over the best year ever at Tuacahn Amphitheatre and Center for the Arts near St. George, Tuacahn's chief executive officer Kevin Smith said.

The Utah Shakespearean Festival in Cedar City reports a 5 percent boost in ticket sales, spokeswoman Amanda Caraway said.

Both say "blockbuster" lineups this year have contributed to the rise.

Yet Cedar City and the surrounding area aren't getting much of the festival's spoils. Hotel occupancy there is down about 2 percent, said Maria Twitchell, executive director of the Cedar City/Brian Head Tourism Bureau. A new hotel opened up there, which might have something to do with the numbers, she noted. But gas prices also likely come into play.

"We're definitely a drive destination," Twitchell said.

Other Utah towns are showing some highs and lows.

Park City's mountain ambience was a hot commodity on the Fourth of July, Park City Chamber Bureau executive director Bill Malone said. But overall visitation is down.

"Pretty much this summer, our weeks have ranged anywhere from 5 to 13 percent off the numbers last year," he said. Some of it has to do with corporate retreats.

"While their company may be very healthy financially, we hear of groups who cut on their corporate travel ... based on the perception of spending money in an economic downturn," Malone said.

Vacationers aren't crowding to several other Utah getaways, either.

Utah's 41 state parks have seen nearly 2 million visitors this year, down about 11 percent from the same time in 2007, according to state parks and recreation numbers. That's more than 250,000 fewer visitors to 41 state parks in the first six months of this year, compared with the same period last year.

Willard Bay is down 46 percent, or some 52,500 visitors.

"That's partially due to the fact we have low water levels because we're doing repairs on a dike," park ranger James Morgan said. Gas prices also may be playing a role.

"We're a large boating facility," Morgan said. "You pay for the gas to get here, plus to run (a boat). It costs a lot."

But another popular boating park, Utah Lake, has seen 7 percent more visitors this year, or 9,300 additional people, state numbers show.

"I would probably blame gas prices. ... It's keeping people local," park manager Ty Hunter said. The lake, located just off I-15 smack in the middle of a population center, mainly draws visitors from southern Salt Lake County, Utah County and northern Juab County. They're also staying all day at the lake, instead of a few hours. On Saturdays, overflow parking is needed around noon.

Palisade State Park in Sanpete County has reported 24,000 additional visitors so far this year, for a 20 percent increase.

But that number actually is below expectation, said assistant manager Brad Bird. The park, which features a reservoir, golf course and hiking trails, increased camp sites by about a third this year. Visitation was expected to grow by similar numbers.

"I think it's the gas," Bird said. "I think people are staying home. But we're still full — we couldn't get any more people. But they're not doing as much driving in and out."

Goblin Valley in Green River reports a whopping 61 percent increase in visitation, or more than 13,600 additional people.

Assistant park manager Megan Blackwelder attributes some of the uptick to a new traffic counter and cool June weather.

Utah's 13 national parks have seen 3.6 million visitors in the first six months of the year — a 1.3 percent increase from a year ago, National Park Service numbers show.

"We don't know why this year, despite our best estimates, if you will, visitation at the national parks is flat," National Park Service management analyst Tom Wade said. "We expected more local people to show up, but we don't know ... why and who are coming this year versus last year."

Trisha Seamons of Provo in most years has taken her family on a road trip to Goblin Valley in Emery County. This year, they'll visit nearby Spanish Fork Canyon instead.

Many families are being careful in this economy.

Holly Faulkner, who with her husband owns Will's Pit Stop and Will's Canyon Stop convenience stores in Utah County, sees some customers literally scraping spare change to fill their tanks.

Her family is cautious these days, too.

"When we filled up the boat, we were like, 'Oh!'" she said just before launching at Utah Lake. "That's why we've only used it three times this year. You have to cut back."


E-mail: jtcook@desnews.com