SALT LAKE CITY — Tourism in the Beehive State is growing at historic levels, and research indicates the trend could continue for the foreseeable future.
A report authored by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah stated that tourism grew 12 percent from 2011 to 2015, with visitors spending a record of nearly $8.2 billion and generating approximately $1.15 billion in total state and local tax revenue.
The travel and tourism industry also generated about 142,500 total jobs in 2015, the report stated.
Additionally, U.S. and foreign visitation rose to record levels, both nationally and statewide, due in large part to a strong economy and relatively low gasoline prices, explained Jennifer Leaver, research analyst for the Gardner Policy Institute.
"Millennials as a generational group prefer to have experiences, so they are very attracted to our outdoor recreation with opportunities such as hiking, backpacking, rock climbing and skiing," Leaver said. "(Also) our 'Mighty 5' campaign that highlighted our national parks has seemed to really attract a wide variety of international and domestic visitors."
In 2015, national travel research firm TNS Global reported a 20 percent year-over-year increase in domestic person-trips (leisure and business) to Utah. Additionally, Utah national park visitation — a good indicator of international traveler activity — grew 16 percent from 2014 to 2015, she said.
Travel and Tourism | Heather Tuttle, Deseret News
The U.S. Department of Commerce is predicting that international overnight visitors to America may reach a record 78.6 million this year — up 2.4 percent from last year, Leaver said. Also, the Commerce Department predicts a 3.3 percent annual rise in international visitor volume, with China, Canada and Mexico accounting for a majority of that inbound U.S. travel, she said.
"The (latest data) that I've seen show increased visitation to the national parks and monuments, as well as increased tourism-related tax revenue and increased jobs," Leaver said.
Speaking Wednesday at the Gardner Policy Institute, Vicki Varela, managing director of the Utah Office of Tourism, said the state's growing popularity as a tourist destination has many positive attributes but also has presented some challenges for rural towns.
Larger crowds have put increased pressure on local infrastuctures and park amenities, which need to be addressed before it's too late, Varela said.
"Protecting quality of life for our local citizens and protecting the quality of the experience for our visitors (is critical)," she said. "Those are complex issues, but we have to get it right."
Varela said the state is working with Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, to lobby for federal funding to support the state's national parks. She also noted that the parks need to use more innovative solutions to mitigate some of the issues the sites and communities face, such as utilizing technology to reduce wait times, improve efficiency and enhance the visitor experience.
"The whole question about visitation management is being sorted right now," Varela said. "Everyone is trying to figure out the right ingredients to protect quality of the experience for visitors and the people in the local community."
In the wake of the controversy surrounding the designation of Bears Ears National Monument, Varela said how the state deals with public lands as it relates to tourism will take some time and serious consideration.
"It's a matter of getting it right in terms of public access, protection of resources and local collaboration to make sure that we're doing (everything) with the full understanding and agreement on what we want our local economies to look like," she said.
Regarding how the state will manage the newly enacted liquor laws and their potential impact on tourism, Varela said it will take some finesse and patience to convey to visitors the way they can enjoy adult beverages.
Laws are constantly being refined, she noted, and the governor is expected to convene a special session to address some of those issues. In meantime, Varela said her office will work to clarify how visitors can get the most out of their Utah experience.
"One of the things that we do is great storytelling," she said. "We want people to know how welcome they are here and what an interesting culture we have.
"We always have to do an effective job of informing people about what great food destinations people can enjoy here, (and how they can be) paired with a great glass of wine, whiskey or whatever their beverage of choice is."