A surge of tourists in Utah prompts questions of how to handle visitors sustainably
Overcrowding and mess—two words that shouldn’t come to mind when thinking about nature. Thanks to a boom in domestic travel during the pandemic and tourists that experts describe as “new to nature,” these two words became associated with some of Utah’s parks. In 2023, there are plans to ease this kind of tension while also accommodating higher numbers of visitors in the future.
Travel has officially begun to bounce back in the US and internationally as pandemic restrictions have eased, though it hasn’t hit the same levels as in 2019. Much of the increased travel last year was in business sectors, according to the US Travel Association, and is likely to continue growing in 2023—though they don’t expect it to hit pre-pandemic levels quite yet. Meanwhile, some airlines posted better-than-expected earnings for 2022 and are planning to see continued growth in 2023.
The finances back up these findings. According to Statista, tourism made up nearly $10 trillion of the US’s GDP in 2019. In 2020, that number plummeted to $4.8 trillion and climbed back up to $5.8 trillion in 2021.
For domestic travelers eager to explore the country after years of quarantine, national and state parks were a major draw. In Hawaii, for example, the problems that have arisen from tourism—overwhelmed communities, harm to the environment and increased costs of living—are bad enough that the state is reconsidering its relationship with the industry.
In Utah, similar patterns have played out in the past few years. Increased costs of living mean tourist areas are staffed by people who can’t afford to live, while preserved parks are battling surges that threaten to harm their ecosystems.
In order to combat these issues, Utah’s parks have put in place measures like lotteries and timed entry to ease the strain on parks and ensure their environmental protection. Zion National Park, for example, extended its lottery program into 2024 recently to help spread out visitors.
According to Vicki Varela, the managing director of Utah’s Office of Tourism, the sector is a major boost to the state’s economy. She says according to their determinations, without tourism, which she refers to as the “visitor economy,” each household would have to pay $1,200 to $1,300 more in taxes each year.
Varela says visitors spend about $10 billion in Utah each year at places like hotels, gas stations, parks and more.
“We are continuing to recover from Covid, and the numbers look pretty good as a whole. We do know, at least with a mild recession projected in 2023, that just creates uncertainty,” she says. “There’s no way around it. We still don’t have international visitors back to pre-pandemic levels, and that really matters to some of our destinations that are really heavily dependent on international visitors.”
One change Varela notes is there was previously more traffic in rural areas since the pandemic had forced people outside and shut down metropolitan areas. But now that trend has reversed, she says, as business has bounced back and travel for work is generating more traction.
That said, she isn’t expecting an influx over last year’s visitors due to gas prices and inflation remaining high.
“It’s still lots of stabilizing post-pandemic,” she says. “Before the pandemic, you could see steady growth in certain regions, in international travel, and now it’s more of a roller coaster as things stabilize.”
She says the “Mighty Five” national parks are a key part of Utah’s tourism appeal overall and help set the state apart as a destination, but that each park requires its own strategy and approach. This is especially important in terms of considering the needs and protection of communities around the parks.
“The truth is there are visitors that are new to nature, and at the height of the pandemic, we had a big increase in Utah residents getting out and exploring the great outdoors, and that’s fantastic, but they were new to nature.”
“The many guests who are new to nature also create challenges due to their lack of experience and awareness of natural values ... This places new demands on the destinations to guide responsible behavior during the visit.”
Coming out of Covid, the concept of travelers behaving badly in pristine environments has become an international problem. A Danish nonprofit called the Tourism Cooperative, which is focused on sustainable tourism, argued in a 2021 report that the post-pandemic resurgence of environmental tourism would need to prioritize educating guests on how to take care of their surroundings.
“The many guests who are new to nature also create challenges due to their lack of experience and awareness of natural values,” they wrote. “This places new demands on the destinations to guide responsible behavior during the visit.”
For Varela, this is especially important because she says Utah’s biggest draws are outdoor recreation and parks.
“We have really defined ourselves as a mecca for outdoor recreation, summer and winter,” she says.
At the same time, state parks have seen an explosion in interest, according to Devon Chavez, a spokesperson for the Division of State Parks. During Covid, he says, many things were shut down but didn’t necessarily close. After things started to open up again, interest in the state facilities “exploded,” he says, because people realized there was a lot of travel within the state and region they had not done.
“It was absolutely astounding, and it continued to go up and up and up,” he says. “We saw a lot of in-state people experiencing a lot of stuff in their backyard that they’d never seen before.”
He said the post-pandemic increase in visitation was, in fact, up 33 percent from other years. Visitors came from Arizona, California, Nevada and New Mexico.
“They were all looking for places to go, and we were filling that need,” Chavez says. “We had a new problem during that time, and that was the parks reaching capacity.”
Unlike other areas of tourism, the peak for state parks came in 2021. In 2019, Chavez says, they had about 7.4 million visitors. In 2021, that number shot up to more than 12 million and then settled slightly at 10.7 million in 2022. He says it may have started to decrease again because more cities and big attractions have begun to re-open.
As this took place, the state parks began dealing with something very similar to what the Big Five national parks had been experiencing. At the same time, he explains, this sudden interest made it possible to come up with solutions to the problems presented by more visitors; increased traffic meant more money for the state system, which then allowed them to create new systems to handle higher volumes of visitors.
“That money goes back into the state park system,” he says. “So we were really happy… that helps improve state parks.”
Chavez is particularly excited about smaller, previously unknown parks that have grown into major attractions during this period.
“All of the Utah hidden gems have become crown jewels,” he says. “There are tons of beautiful areas to explore as well.”
For Varela, the most important part of the renewed interest and continued expansion of outdoor visits is awareness. To fulfill that need, the state tourism board has a campaign called “Forever Mighty” that attempts to promote environmental protection and responsible recreation.
In order to do this, she says they are working with local municipalities and parks to distribute information, plus putting a lot of information on their social media and websites.
“A lot of people who come to Utah have never experienced being in a desert, so they need information about staying on a trail, having water, not disrupting the spectacular artifacts we have from Native American cultures,” she says. “People have to be taught respect, not even touching them, because of the damage that can be done.”
At the same time, this whole process is an important aspect of Utah’s financial well-being, she says.
“Utah’s tourism economy is a huge part of our overall economy,” Valera argues. “It’s close to ten percent of the overall spending, and it’s also very important as a welcome mat to the state. A lot of businesses that have relocated or expanded here have done so because they first experienced Utah through a ski vacation or a summer vacation … We’re very lucky that we have a great product to sell because people love their experiences in Utah.”