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A Year Apart: Tourism In Southern Utah Is Returning To Normal After a Rocky 12 Months

Visitors line up to take a photo at Delicate Arch in Arches National Park on March 21, 2021. The park closed at least 10 times due to overcrowding in March.
Kate Groetzinger / KUER News
Visitors line up to take a photo at Delicate Arch in Arches National Park on March 21, 2021. The park closed at least 10 times due to overcrowding in March.

This time last year, Lance Syrett was staring at an empty reservation book for Easter weekend.

He’s the general manager of Ruby’s Inn, a 700-room hotel next to Bryce Canyon National Park.

“It was almost comical, because we’ve never had a day — even in the worst blizzard, in the deepest, darkest winter — where we didn't rent one hotel room,” Syrett said. “But that happened.”

He said the spring, which is normally the beginning of southern Utah’s tourism season, was devastating to his business. With Bryce Canyon closed and international travel suspended, he didn’t have any customers.

By summer, though, he figured out a plan.

“We had to go out and we had to find new customers,” he said. “We focused our marketing efforts on nearby states… It kind of saved our business.”

Syrett’s business is one of thousands across Utah that took a hit from the pandemic.

Tourism in southern Utah was almost completely wiped out in the spring, but it came roaring back in the fall, as people looked for ways to get out of their houses. That still wasn’t enough to set the books back to where they were before the pandemic for most businesses. But this year is looking a lot better, according to tourism directors across the state.

Visitation in Kane County is almost back to normal after an unpredictable 2020, according to Camille Johnson Taylor. She directs the Kane County Office of Tourism and said the pandemic took some air out of celebrations planned to mark the 150th anniversary of Kanab last summer.

“We were so excited,” Johnson Taylor said. “We had so many big plans and fun things we wanted to do but we had to hold off on some things, and we never had a chance to revisit them.”

They still got to host some events, she said, thanks to Kane County being the first to move into the “green”, low-risk phase of the state’s reopening plan. And visitation there grew steadily throughout the summer and into the fall.

Overall, Johnson Taylor said Kane County’s hotel room tax revenue was only down 10% in 2020, compared to 2019, which is a smaller loss than she had anticipated.

“Everyone came out of it,” she said, referring to tourism-related businesses. “We were so fortunate, because I know a lot of destinations lost a lot.”

Moab also had a rough spring, in part due to a county-mandated ban on visitation, followed by a good recovery.

“We were the most stringent [county],” said Elaine Gizler, the Moab Area Travel Council director. “Because, initially, our hospital could only handle one patient, if someone needed a ventilator.”

The ban on overnight visitation ended in May, and things almost immediately began to recover, Gizler said. By June, almost every commercial campground was booked, she added.

Still, that wasn’t enough to make up for the spring losses. Moab finished the year with 17% less hotel tax revenue last year than in 2019, Gizler said.

Most destinations in southern Utah did better than the rest of the state, according to Vicki Varela, the state tourism director. She said the state’s total hotel tax revenue was down around 30% last year compared to 2019, but she’s projecting a good year for Utah tourism in 2021 as business travel goes back to normal.

“The recovery has been uneven even throughout Utah,” Varela said. “For communities that are located near our state parks and our national parks, recovery has been much better than for urban areas.”

There are some exceptions to that rule, such as Bluff — which is located next to Bears Ears National Monument. Business owners there said they didn’t see the same bump as Moab and Kane County last fall.

Jennifer Davila owns a 10-room hotel called La Posada Pintada, and she said that could be because Bluff is located so close to the Navajo Nation, where the virus was raging last year and tribal parks were shut down.

But Davila is finally starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel. This week, she said, is the first time business has been back to normal since before the pandemic hit.

And Ruby’s Inn is fully booked for Easter Weekend, according to Syrett.

Kate joined KUER from Austin, Texas. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Communication. She has been an intern, fellow and reporter at Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Quartz, the Texas Standard and Voces, an oral history project. Kate began her public radio career at Austin’s NPR station, KUT, as a part-time reporter. She served as a corps member of Report For America, a public service program that partners with local newsrooms to bring reporters to undercovered areas across the country.
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