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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.

Transient room tax revenue ‘exploded’ in southwest Utah last year

Long line of visitors waiting at Zion National Park.
Zion National Park
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Zion National Park had more than 5 million visitors in 2021, a record high. Washington County also saw a record in the amount of transient room tax collected from tourists.

Tourism boomed in southwest Utah last year, and with that so did revenue from the transient room tax, which is money from temporary visitor lodging. A bill in the Legislature will give some counties that are home to national parks more flexibility on how they use that money.

HB 323 amends the transient room tax law to address the steep increase in tourism revenue Washington County, and potentially other counties, collected in 2021. It unanimously passed the House last week.

The bill is sponsored by Rep. Brad Last, R-Hurricane, who said transient room tax “exploded.” The bill does two things to increase flexibility in spending TRT revenue — it gives counties that meet certain requirements more time to spend excess revenue and allows up to 10% of the money to go toward destination development.

Washington County collected almost $9 million in TRT revenue the year before the pandemic, according to Kevin Lewis, the county’s tourism director. That number dipped in 2020, as did visitorship to Zion National Park. By 2021, the tax brought in more than $15 million — a record high.

“This is obviously not a normal year,” he said. “We gained $6 million in transit room tax in one year. It's probably not sustainable. So we don't want to plan for that, but we want a plan to use that effectively and make sure that it gets used in a good way.”

Current state law requires Washington County spend half the TRT revenue from the previous year, Lewis said. The new bill would allow counties with more than a 150% increase in revenue year to year the ability to save more of it. This provision is just between fiscal year 2019 through 2023.

Rep. Last said the changes will affect Washington County. However, he said the measure could apply to other counties as well, but they’re waiting to see final numbers for TRT revenue last year.

The other change would allow counties that contain national parks to put more of the money toward destination development and visitor management.

“We were literally flooded with people in southern Utah, and what happened with our transient room tax was that it exploded,” Last, the bill’s sponsor, said. “This just provides a little bit of flexibility for helping to manage the visitors that are coming to certain areas of the state.”

Lewis said Washington County has not determined specific projects for the money, but he said they’ll benefit everyone.

“We're really focused now on taking care of the destination,” he said, “[and] making sure that we have a go-forward strategy to care for the resources that we have and to plan for the future and how they're being used.”

Lexi is KUER's Southwest Bureau reporter
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