BLUFF — Business has completely dried up at Canyonlands Jeep Adventures in Moab.
Owner Jason Taylor rents his cars out at the airport and in town, but no one is flying into Moab right now.
“I literally have 22 cars sitting in a parking lot, gathering dust and 20 four-wheel drives that aren’t doing anything now either,” he said. “So, it’s not good.”
While there have been fewer than five confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Grand County, the response to the virus has decimated the county’s finances, which depend on tourism tax dollars. And as parts of southeast Utah get ready to re-open, along with Arches and Canyonlands national parks, there’s increasing pressure to ramp up tourism in Moab — despite the risk of potentially inviting the virus into the area.
The Moab Area Travel Council, which Taylor sits on, wants to jumpstart tourism this summer and fall by spending $500,000 on advertising in the region. The council stopped advertising in March, due to closures in Moab related to COVID-19. Without tax revenue to fund the new advertising push, the council may have to turn to the county for help. But with both the city of Moab and Grand County facing major budget deficits this year, it’s unclear from where that money will come.
During a travel council meeting this week, Taylor said advertising to tourists is the only way the county can recoup the revenue lost during the pandemic.
“The county hasn’t really proposed a recovery plan, and until we find that diamond mine outside of town, it’s going to be people coming to Moab and spending money,” he said. “So this needs to be presented as Grand County’s recovery plan for 2020.”
But the travel council, which is a department of Grand County, relies on tax revenue generated from tourism to fund its operations and advertising. And with visitation lagging, the council could see its $3 million budget cut in half this year, said County Administrator Chris Baird.
“They’ve already spent more in the beginning of the year than [tourism] brought in,” Baird said. “And money is not coming in to replenish that fund.”
The exact amount the council will need is not clear, according to Elaine Gizler, executive director of the travel council. She said they won’t need all of the money upfront, since the council is aiming to spend just $4,000 on marketing in June, and tourism revenue should ramp up again later this summer.
If the travel council does ask Grand County for money, County Councilmember Mary McGann said she can’t guarantee they’ll get any, since the county is also struggling financially.
“It’s a tough situation,” she said. “They’re trying to get blood out of a turnip.”
Grand County will likely have a budget shortfall of around $6 million to $7 million this year. That’s around 30% less revenue than it needs to cover its budget, according to Baird, who extrapolated sales tax revenue from Grand County’s slowest month last year to create this year’s revenue projection.
He added that the county has laid off 19 employees since the onset of COVID-19, and the council will likely be forced to consider additional budget cuts.
“At this point, everything is on the table,” McGann said.
Despite the county’s dire financial outlook, McGann added she’s not convinced an advertising campaign is a good idea right now, since it could cause an outbreak of the virus in Moab.
“I understand the desire to get back to business, but I'm afraid that by opening up too fast we will destroy the fall season,” she said.
While the Moab Area Travel Council is moving forward with its plans to promote tourism, the Utah Office of Tourism has not yet planned any advertising for the remainder of this year. It stopped advertising in March, according to Managing Director Vicki Varela, who said they’re waiting until later in the summer to resume their efforts.
The office is using three metrics — “safety, community preparedness, and consumer confidence” — to determine when to start advertising Utah to tourists, Varela said.
She said the office will wait to advertise to a community until its infection rate is flat for at least two weeks. State tourism officials will also monitor the willingness of communities in Utah to welcome visitors on top of watching consumer confidence in travel.
“When all three of those are a ‘Go’, we’ll start putting ads back into the marketplace,” she said. “But it’s just not time yet.”