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Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Justin Griffiths watches the seals with his daughter Lydia during a visit to Hogle Zoo on Sunday, Jan. 12, 2014.
If tourism were a stock, if people could invest in Utah tourism, people would be putting their money down. —Vicky Varela

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s ski resorts and the Sundance Film Festival attract a lot of tourists this time of year, and there’s a lot of optimism for 2014.

“If tourism were a stock, if people could invest in Utah tourism, people would be putting their money down,” said Vicky Varela, managing director of the Utah Office of Tourism.

The industry experienced a record year in 2012. According to the Bureau of Economic and Business Research, the travel, tourism and recreation industry spent a record $7.4 billion in the state economy. Tourism-related state and local tax revenues totaled an estimated $960.6 million in 2012.

The 2013 numbers aren't all in yet, but Utah is poised to hit a significant benchmark: Tourism business is up nearly 10 percent from the previous year.

"We are on the threshold of generating $1 billion a year in tax revenues from tourism,” Varela said. “That would be an all-time record."

And the state is hoping to continue that trend by increasing its tourism advertising in other U.S. and international markets.

The state has interactive billboards in place right now in New York and Los Angeles to promote the state’s skiing industry. The billboards can be instantly updated. The signs reflect the latest snowstorm totals as of Thursday.

"On Jan. 9, we got 18 inches for breakfast. Be here for lunch," the billboard read.

Those boards will be up at New York's Penn Station during the Super Bowl as well.

"Utah is no longer a secret,” Varela said. “Utah is a ‘bucket list’ destination for tourists around the world."

One of the places people love to visit is Hogle Zoo.

“The zoo usually comes out in the top five of the top paid tourist attractions in the state, and that’s even rivaling some of our national parks,” said Erica Hansen, Hogle Zoo community relations coordinator.

The zoo saw more than 1 million visitors during four of the past five years, despite several construction projects.

The zoo has seen some big construction projects over the years. It welcomed back polar bear Rizzo, three sea lions (Big Guy, Rocky and Maverick), three harbor seals and two river otters with its Rocky Shores exhibit, which opened June 1, 2012. Rocky Shores reintroduced grizzly bears to Utah. The Bear Meadows exhibit houses three grizzly bear siblings.

The zoo's latest project, African Savanna, has been under construction since summer of 2012. The 5-acre, $15 million attraction is expected to open in May.

The new area will be a mixed-species exhibit, as opposed to just the lions confined to one area and the zebras in their own enclosure.

“This is kind of the new, cutting edge for zoos, to let them kind of mix and mingle and see how they do,” Hansen said.

And the popular ZooFari Express will be back.

“It’s going to be a bigger, better train — handicapped accessible, much more comfortable for the grownups, and the train ride is longer,” Hansen said.

Contributing: Viviane Vo-Duc