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Concerns Over Coronavirus Affecting Utah's Tourism

Photo of people gathered in the hall of the Utah Capitol building
Jon Reed
Coronavirus concerns have begun to affect Utah’s tourism industry, which gathered at the state capitol Wednesday. ";

Tourism is a big business in Utah. In 2018 alone, the industry generated $9.75 billion and brought in travelers from all over the world. That included a record number of visitors to the state’s national parks and ski resorts. 

But fears over the spread of the coronavirus are threatening to put a damper on the industry — the eighth largest in the state — which has been bolstered by Chinese tourists in recent years. 

“We are seeing the impact,” said Vicki Varela, director of the state’s tourism office. “Cancelled trips, cancelled conferences. The real question for us is how long does this go on?”

Varela said travel from China to the U.S. has effectively shut down. Utah’s tourism office has also stopped advertising in some international markets to stem visitor interest.

Chinese visitors to the state have shot up dramatically over the last few years. In 2013, they accounted for the 11th most international visitors, Varela said. By 2018, they became the second largest group, behind only Canadians, and spent over $120 million. 

“This is like mass cancellation I would say,” said Ken Patel, who manages the Adventure Inn Motel in Moab.

He said he typically sees a lot of Chinese tourists each year, though the recent slowdown has come from other international travelers too. He said he recently had a couple of big groups from France cancel, who were up front in telling him the reason they aren’t coming is because of the virus. 

“I wouldn’t blame them personally,” he said. “I put myself in their place, I wouldn’t travel either.”

Since data for the tourism industry aren’t typically available until at least the following quarter, the exact impact of the slowdown now won’t be known for months, Varela said. 2018 is still the latest year for which annual numbers are available. 

“We'll have to see what happens over the next six months, but it certainly is not going to be a positive thing,” said Gov. Gary Herbert. “The uncertainty of it right now is really going to stop people from coming.”

The broader economy has not responded well to the virus — which has now spread to more than 80 countries, according to The Washington Post, and caused 12 deaths in the U.S., as of 4 p.m. Thursday. Last week, the Dow Jones Industrial Average saw a record drop, stoking fears over a possible recession. Global air traffic is also on pace for its first decline in 11 years.

The Salt Lake City International Airport, however, has been seeing record-breaking numbers of its own in the opposite direction — upwards of 30,000 passengers per day, according to airport spokeswoman Nancy Volmer. 

Those are mostly skiers, she said, and the airport has no plans now to reduce travel though it is taking precautions to slow the virus’ spread. If anyone is thought to have it, they would be taken into a seperate room and evaluated by the health department, Volmer said.

“It would seem like airports would be more vulnerable to this virus, but then you see some other situations — like in Washington — where the person hadn't been traveling and they got the virus,” Volmer said. “So I think at this point it’s really hard to say where the touch points are.”

For now, neither Herbert nor Patel are particularly worried about the virus’ impact on tourism in Utah. Patel said he even has some sold-out days later in the year, mostly from local travelers. 

“Just like nobody wants to travel here from overseas, I think all of our local people are not going to travel anywhere too,” he said. “So they will try to find a place somewhere close.”

He said he’s hoping business will pick back up after a few months.

Jon Reed is a reporter for KUER. Follow him on Twitter @reedathonjon

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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