SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Tourism spending in Utah has hit a new high of $7.98 billion, driven in part by record visitation to the state's five national parks, according to a new report released Wednesday from the University of Utah.
A recovering economy and relatively low gas prices helped traveler spending grow about 5 percent in 2014, said Jennifer Leaver, an analyst at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute who authored the report. Tourism is one of the state's largest industries, and in counties with hotspots like Park City and Moab it generated at least 40 percent of total wages, the report found.
The bulk of the spending, $6.8 billion, came from people who visited Utah from outside the state or country. Among international visitors, one growing group is tourists from China, the report found. Spending by Chinese tourists grew by more than $1 million in 2014 as people from the country's growing middle class traveled abroad.
The spectacular red-rock cliffs at southern Utah's Zion National Park and unique formations at Arches helped push the combined visitation total at state's five national parks to more than 8 million, a record. That brought in about $745 million in spending to Utah, according to the report, but it has also strained the system. At Zion, park officials have said the increased traffic combined with a stagnant budget has taken a toll on services, including search and rescue.
"I think that's one of challenges going forward will be to balance out the popularity, the numbers of people coming, with the infrastructure and capabilities," Leaver said.
Park visitation is already up 10 percent this year as the National Park Service celebrates its centennial, she said.
The other big player in Utah tourism is the ski industry. The state's 14 resorts brought in about $1.2 billion during the 2014-15 season, the report found. That's down about 9 percent since the last biannual survey because of lackluster snow totals, but new snow-making technology meant that the ski lifts stayed humming, according to the analysis.
There can be a silver lining to less natural snow, said Nathan Rafferty, president of Ski Utah. Rather than spending all day on the mountain, skiers tend to go into town, spreading around the tourism dollars to shops, restaurants and galleries, he said.
Big events can also generate big revenues, including an estimated $57.2 million spent by nonresidents during the Sundance Film Festival in Park City.
Utah's capital also hosts dozens of conventions and trade shows during the year, bringing millions more in tourism spending to the state. They also helped push Salt Lake County hotel revenues above the 2002 record set during the city's turn hosting the Winter Olympic Games, the report says.
Utah tourism got a shot in the arm when the state started marketing itself about 10 years ago, said Vicki Varela, director of the Utah Office of Tourism. Now, the state touts both its parks and its winter sports with the "Mighty 5" and "Greatest Snow on Earth" campaigns.