‘Everybody’s anxious’ about possible impacts COVID-19 virus could have on area tourism

ST. GEORGE — Locations in southwest Utah were among the top five most visited by tourists in 2018. Tourism is one of the state’s major industries and there are concerns that the continuing spread of the coronavirus will negatively impact the industry.

The Cedar High School marching band performs at the beginning of the second annual Southern Utah Tourism Summit, Cedar City, Utah, March 28, 2019 | File photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

The St. George, Springdale and Cedar City area ranked second, third and fourth place among the most visited places in 2018, according to the Utah Tourism Office. They were sandwiched between the Salt Lake City and Provo/Orem areas listed at first and fifth place.

Tourism overall brought $9.75 billion to Utah in 2018. In Washington County, dollars spent by tourists who stay in Washington County were estimated to bring in $600 million annually, according to Kevin Lewis, director of the Greater Zion Convention and Tourism Office.

On Friday, Gov. Gary Herbert declared a state of emergency in preparation of COVID-19 cases in Utah. The Utah Department of Health announced the same day that the state had its first confirmed case of COVID-19. The health department reported the patient, who lives in Davis County, contracted the virus while on the Grand Princess cruise ship.

“In general, everybody’s anxious about it for sure,” Lewis said. “We’ve been watching numbers in international travel. Mainly, that’s the biggest impact for right now.”

Washington County gains an estimated $9 million from transient room tax, or hotel stays, annually, Lewis said. Of the money earned from international tourists, around 41% is spent in the Springdale-Zion National Park area. Another 42% is spent in St. George and the western side of the county.

Domestic tourism is more heavily focused on the St. George side of the county with 76% of domestic tourism dollars spent there, and just 15% at Springdale and Zion National Park.

Its hard to quantify what current impacts are being felt by the industry, Lewis said, adding that the tourism industry doesn’t get data of visitation and its economic impacts until six-to-eight months after the fact. However, there have already been some noticeable impacts.

Director of Washington County Tourism, Kevin Lewis, joins with the crowd in welcoming the Ironman 70.3 World Championship site selection committee at the Ironman pep rally held at Town Square Park, St. George, Utah, March 26, 2019 | File photo by Hollie Reina, St. George News

A large part of the county tourism office’s job is to expose Washington County to various domestic and international markets as a desirable site for tourism, as well as convention and sporting events.

Recently, a planned marketing trip to Italy was canceled due to the coronavirus outbreak in that country. On the other side of the Atlantic, a French tourism coordinator planning group visits to Washington County so tourism officials could become familiar with the location was also canceled.

“We’re not going places we would normally go to market,” Lewis said.

One aspect of international tourism that is bound to have an impact is a likely lack of Chinese tourists.

Chinese tourism in Utah has grown to the point that the Chinese make up the second largest group of international visitors to Utah. Above them are Canadians, according to the Utah Tourism Office.

However, international travel tends to happened more in the summer than during the current season, said Shayne Wittwer, of Wittwer Hospitality, which has properties in southwest Utah, Moab and northern Arizona.

“We haven’t seen anything fall off substantially yet,” Wittwer said, “but there’s a potential impact we’re watching for.”

The St. George Area Economic Summit, St. George, Utah, Jan. 9, 2020 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

The city of St. George, which tends to hold events somewhere in the city nearly every weekend, is also monitoring the coronavirus situation.

“It’s all systems go right now,” said David Cordero, the city’s communications and marketing director.

One of the biggest events on the horizon is the Ironman triathlon set for early May. So far it is still on course to take place, though officials are monitoring that situation as well, Lewis said.

The event is believed to bring in more visitors than it has in previous years due to the race being a full Ironman instead of the shorter Ironman 70.3 events the area has hosted in recent years.

Last year the Ironman St. George 70.3 put up to $7 million into the local economy.

If that event were canceled, Wittwer said it would hurt, but it’s also only one weekend out of the summer.

“We’re more worried about the impacts of a full summer,” he said. “No Chinese visitors will definitely have an impact.”

Holly Lawrence, the first female professional athlete to start running, heads toward the finish line of the 2019 Ironman 70.3 in Southern Utah, May 4, 2019 | File photo by Hollie Reina, St. George News

Still, while international travel may go down, it may bolster domestic travel as people choose to take road trips instead of flying, Wittwer added.

International flights have already seen an impact to travel because of the coronavirus as global air travel is on pace to experience its first decline in 11 years, according to Bloomberg.

The Southern Utah tourism market has shown itself to be resilient, Lewis said.

During the Recession, tourism did flatten out for about two years, but never dipped into the negative. Since then the numbers of been on the rise year after year.

Washington County also has the benefit of a diverse market when it comes to visitors because it also caters to conventions and regional sporting events, Lewis said.

However, Lewis also said this situation is different, as the industry is dealing with an outbreak and not an economic downturn, so just how far the impact on local and state-level tourism may go remains to be seen.

Until the summer comes and more an impact is felt, Wittwer said it’s business as usual.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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