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Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

Utah tourism industry glad to see return of foreign workers

More than 2 million people visited Bryce Canyon National Park in 2021. Public land visitors drive the local economy.
Lexi Peery
More than 2 million people visited Bryce Canyon National Park in 2021. Public land visitors drive the local economy.

Many tourism-based businesses in Utah depend on help from temporary foreign workers, specifically people on J-1 visas. The process to get these workers has been disrupted the past two years and officials are hoping for their return before the upcoming busy season.

A J-1 visa allows for people to stay in the U.S. temporarily, and is often used by students to work seasonal gigs. Around 4,500 J-1 visa holders were employed in Utah in 2019 and around 3,300 worked in the tourism industry, according to numbers provided by the Utah Office of Tourism.

In Garfield County, summer visitors are the biggest economic driver, according to its tourism director Falyn Owens.

“Our county has about 4,000 people in it and we're seeing that there's like 2 million or so visitors a year,” Owens said. “We definitely, during peak season, need to have some extra workforce just to offset what the local workforce can't help us with.”

Ruby’s Inn, located right outside Bryce Canyon National Park, is the largest employer in the county. Lance Syrett, the hotel’s general manager, said before 2020 they’d have 90 to 100 J-1 workers a year. But the pandemic has led to a decrease in that number because of travel restrictions and visa backlogs.

He’s hopeful now, however.

“They've already got their visas, are getting their appointments, and everything looks good for this year,” he said. “So we feel really confident that we're going to get our staff this year.”

Park City is another place that relies on tourism and J-1 workers. Rob Harter, the executive director of the Christian Center of Park City, said they add “international flavor” to the community, which has been missed in recent years.

He said ski resorts and other places that are now more fully open wouldn’t be able to function without these temporary workers, given the already tight labor market.

“The resorts are still struggling just to fill all their spots because the labor shortage is very real but if they wouldn’t have had the international students, I don't know what they would have done,” Harter said.

He pointed out that it’s great to see J-1 workers return to the area, but now they, and others, are struggling to find housing in Park City.

Utah Office of Tourism Director Vicki Varela said J-1 visa workers are needed more than ever, given Utah’s unemployment rate is below 2%. She said the demand for more of them existed before the pandemic though. Now, the state is working with the federal government to hopefully expand the number of visas.

Rep. Blake Moore, R-UT, recently introduced a resolution expressing congressional support for foreign worker visa programs.

Lexi is KUER's Southwest Bureau reporter
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