ST. GEORGE — A new 2,500-square-foot welcome center is in the planning stages for St. George, promising to provide visitors with a breathtaking view of the beauty that makes Southern Utah one of the most sought after places to see in the Beehive state.
The design and construction plans have been approved for a new Utah Visitor Information Center in St. George, one of five centers strategically placed along freeway exits throughout the state, Utah Office of Tourism Managing Director Vicky Varela said.
“Our target is to have the building completed by the end of 2017,” she said, “because the State of Utah Visitor Information Center in St. George is the most important center in Utah.”
The visitor center was previously located in a building off northbound Interstate 15 near Exit 2 before relocating to the Dixie Center St. George in 2008 as the St. George Area Tourism Office.
Its former building caught on fire in July through an undetermined cause and burned to the ground.
The opening of the I-15 interchange with state Route 7, or Southern Parkway, triggered the center’s relocation in 2008 and the move was intended to be temporary; and yet it remains there nearly nine years later.
The new center will be located on land acquired near the old site off I-15 northbound at Exit 2.
The primary objective in the design of the new building is to illustrate Utah’s way of life, Varela said. This will be accomplished with the design of an open floor plan that includes many large, expansive windows that showcase spectacular views.
“It’s one of the first arrival statements upon entering Utah,” she said, adding, “We want them to understand the ‘life elevated’ way of life here.”
Building a new center and having it finished by the end of next year is critical, Varela said, because the state’s tourism industry is on the rise.
Many of those visiting fly into McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas before making their way into Southern Utah. More than 45 million passengers flew into McCarran Airport in Las Vegas in 2015, according to reports generated by Nevada’s Clark County Aviation Department, including 3.4 million international passengers, with a portion of those folks heading north after landing.
The primary northern route from McCarran is Interstate 15 through the Virgin River Gorge, one of the most heavily traveled corridors connecting Southern California, Nevada and Utah with the Rocky Mountains.
The Arizona Department of Transportation estimated in 2014 that nearly 8.4 million cars and more than 1.4 million commercial trucks pass through the Virgin River Gorge every year.
Tourism is good for Utah’s economy, particularly in the international sector, Varela said. Those traveling to Utah from other countries tend to stay longer and spend more. Their trips are planned and saved for, sometimes even for years.
Utah’s revenue from tourism increased 44 percent within the last decade, growing more quickly than any other economy sector in the state.
According to data from the Utah Office of Tourism, visitors spent a total of $7.8 billion in Utah, which included up to $1.07 billion in state and local tax revenues.
The strongest growth can be seen in the number of tourists visiting from China, Varela said.
Gov. Gary Herbert even projected at the 2015 Utah Tourism Conference that 2016 would be “the year of the Chinese tourist.”
In 2015 alone, more than 305 million people visited the nation’s 409 national parks. Even higher visitor numbers are projected in 2016 which marks the centennial of the National Park Service.
Utah boasts five national parks, 40 state parks and is home to 12 national forests, four wildlife ranges a number of national conservation and recreation areas, national monuments and national historical sites. The sites near to St. George increase taking into account those high-interest destinations in neighboring states such as the north rim of Grand Canyon National Park.
Many of these are within 100 miles of St. George.
Washington County alone is home to 78 historical places, 28 of which can be found in Zion National Park, according to a listing in the National Register of Historical Places.
Some attribute the upsurge in tourism, in part, to the highly successful “Find Your Park“ and “Mighty 5″ media campaigns advanced by Utah Office of Tourism.
The Utah Office of Tourism, an agency within the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, promotes out-of-state visitation to Utah through integrated communications, marketing and travel trade initiatives, according to its travel and tourism webpage.
More information about the new visitor center will be available by the end of October, Varela said.
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