While some Americans may not be traveling as far as Paris or Shanghai these days, the recession isn’t keeping international vacationers from visiting the U.S., including Utah. International tourism is up in Utah, a trend that brings big benefits to the local economy. Some Utah communities, in fact, need foreign visitors to survive.
“For an area as economically depressed as Garfield County, tourism is the industry and 70 percent of that industry comes from international tourists,” says Lance Syrett, general manager of Best Western Ruby’s Inn and Bryce View Lodge, situated at the gateway to Bryce Canyon National Park. “We no longer have coal mines or a timber industry to speak of. Without international tourism, we would have nothing in the way of industry.”
Syrett tracks visitors with the Ruby’s Inn registration log and says business from international visitors has grown over the past five years. “Most of our international visitors are European, although we have seen growth in the Asian markets.”
These trends are common across the state, from Angel’s Landing to Alta, while the numbers vary depending on the area’s main attraction.
Spreading the Word
In Utah’s southeast corner, San Juan County’s tourism numbers were up 27 percent in 2008 and 72 percent of those visitors were international. “International tourism is huge for us because the American West is a must-see for international visitors,” says San Juan County Tourism Director, Charlie DeLorme. San Juan County is at the heart of canyon country, famous for old West movies and the entrance to Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, the home of “the iconic Southwest view,” says DeLorme. “Everybody wants to see ‘Forrest Gump Hill.’”
Statistics for the county come from hotel records, which are often full with visitors to the park, but because most of the park lies in Arizona, these visitors skew the county’s numbers a bit, says DeLorme.
Hotel occupancy statistics gathered from myriad agencies and sources only provide part of the tourism picture, says Tracie Cayford, deputy director for the Utah Office of Tourism, but her office is confident the numbers are up. “There are such a variety of markets that it’s tough to get our arms around exact numbers,” Cayford says. “We show that 4 percent of our total visitation to Utah is international, but we think that is likely flawed and very conservative.” Especially so, she says, considering the largest attraction for international visitors to Utah are the five national parks, which don’t keep track of guest by country of origin.
Estimates show international visitors doubling from approximately 305,000 in 2004 to 690,000 in 2006, when Utah’s “Life Elevated” brand was launched and when the state’s tourism advertising budget ballooned from $900,000 to $21 million. In 2008, 740,000 foreign visitors came to Utah, 100,000 more than in 2007.
With the increase in budget and the support of Governor Huntsman, the Utah Office of Tourism began working with other agencies, media outlets, trade shows and countries and, according to Cayford, became “very aggressive in international marketing.” While Utah’s main targets have been Canada, Mexico, Germany, Britain, France, Japan and the Netherlands, China is “emerging.” Visitors from China to Temple Square increased 60 percent from 2007 to 2008.
“Utah has been marketing to China for the last three years,” Cayford explains. “The U.S. and Chinese governments have a new “memorandum of understanding” which allows residents to get travel visas easier, opening an entirely new market of people who have never seen anything like Utah’s powder or persimmon-colored hoodoos.
Cayford says efforts such as attending the CITM, the largest trade show in Asia, is helping them attract visitors from other Asian countries, including South Korea. Also, the 20-year effort targeting Japan is finally paying off since Utah will receive another huge tourism boost this June, after Delta’s new direct flights to Tokyo from the Salt Lake City International Airport begin.
Creativity Goes a Long Way
In addition to the state’s efforts, some regional offices of tourism are able to do their own marketing. Joyce Kelly, with the St. George Office of Convention and Tourism Office works with Zion National Park—the state’s most popular park—and has the budget to attend international travel and trade shows, including the WTM in London, ITB in Germany, Go West Summit and PowWow. “We also participate in various international sales missions.”
But regions with smaller budgets, such as Garfield County, must rely on creativity and state efforts. “As direct marketing efforts and travel to foreign trade shows is very cost prohibitive for a hotel even as big as ours, we rely heavily on organizations like the Utah Office of Tourism to do them for us,” says Syrett. “If we did not have the UOT as well as other [organizations] in the state doing these direct marketing efforts internationally, I don’t think it would be long before Utah would be forgotten, especially when our neighbors like Colorado, Arizona and Nevada have such big marketing budgets.”
But there are signs that Utah is winning this battle as well, getting the message across that there is prime skiing beyond Colorado, and that Delicate Arch, the state’s iconic natural formation, is actually in Utah and not Arizona. A recent Ski Journal issue reports that SkiUtah continues “to launch groundbreaking ideas that other states can only copy,” giving Utah record numbers each year, while Colorado’s actually shrank last season. “The real story here is SkiUtah,” the journal reports. “Over the past two years, they started a popular blog that features video cut right from the resorts. They sponsored a cycling team. They found a dozen corporate sponsorships for their November Fat Flake Festival…They do all this by putting Utah ski resorts in the news day in and day out.”
In February, USA Today ran an extensive piece on Utah skiing, on the perks, bargains and beauties of each resort.
Whatever the reasons for the climb in international visitors, from favorable currency conditions to ad placement in Time magazine to making connections at the trade shows, these guests couldn’t be more welcome. “To me, it seems Americans are more susceptible to the ‘doom and gloom’ on the news, and we’ve seen the number of Americans traveling to Bryce drop over the very same time period,” says Syrett. “Because of this drop in domestic travel, the increase in international visitation has been very timely.”