Utah is attracting more visitors despite the slow economy of the past year.

The Utah Office of Tourism said Monday that the state attracted 20.4 million people in 2008, an increase of more than 16 percent since 2004.

Four years ago, 17.5 million visitors made Utah their travel destination, the office said. The influx of travel generated $7.19 billion of sales and revenue for Utah businesses last year — up 27 percent over the $5.65 billion that came in during 2004.

"We did get a travelers spending rise of 6.2 percent in '08, which is what pushed us over $7 billion," Leigh von der Esch, managing director of the Office of Tourism, told the Deseret News.

Von der Esch attributed the hike in tourism to the state's increase in marketing funding. Prior to the increase, Utah was spending in one year the same amount that Vail, Colo., spent on its summer marketing alone.

"In 2004, the state of Utah was spending the same $900,000 that Vail, Colo., was spending on their summer campaign," she said. "There was no penetration. There was no ability to create any awareness," von der Esch said. "We did an image survey and found out that 42 percent of the people that were shown a picture of Delicate Arch thought it was in Arizona."

To make matters worse, many others surveyed didn't know where the renowned geographic feature was located at all, she added.

Von der Esch said that beginning in 2006, her agency was given $18 million to spend on "rebranding" Utah as a prime tourist destination.

"We increased our international marketing at least five-fold," von der Esch said. "We really hit England, France and Germany very hard, focusing on our national parks and the value of coming to Utah."

So far, the efforts have paid big dividends, she added.

With the economy hurting state revenues, she said that this year her agency will continue its marketing with about 37 percent less funding than last year. Even so, she remains optimistic.

"We certainly hope that we continue to grow the industry and, if nothing else, maintain the jobs if those who work in the industry," von der Esch said.

E-MAIL: jlee@desnews.com