ST. GEORGE — A year after tourism in the county nosedived due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, local tourism and state park officials continue to see a rebound with record months and the anticipation of increased crowds this upcoming Easter weekend.
March and April tend to span a four-week period when school districts across Utah release their students for spring break. Plans for the 2020 spring break season were canceled by the newly declared pandemic; and tourism – most notably international tourism – dried up.
March and April last year were hard months, Kevin Lewis, director of the Greater Zion Tourism Office, told St. George last week. However, from May onward, the tourism and hospitality industry in the area began to see gains again.
“Once we shook off the chains and cobwebs of those first two months, it’s been up and up,” he said.
Since August, tourism to the area has been breaking records month after month, Lewis said.
This has happened despite the loss of international travel, as well as the cancellation of major sporting events and conventions set to come to St. George over the last year. Despite these losses, the local tourism industry has largely been bolstered by visitors from across the state and region in the wake of the pandemic.
Youth sporting events, while initially canceled like everything else early on, have begun to return to St. George, as have some conventions, Lewis said, adding that off-road events held at Sand Mountain have also returned.
The Ironman triathlon, which was postponed and then canceled last year, is coming back in May.
While various outdoor events are making a comeback, Washington County has seen a rather consistent draw to its outdoor recreational offerings. Where possible, visitors have also taken advantage of the county’s state parks over the last year.
“This is certainly a lot better,” Lewis said of the tourism rebound, which expected to continue with Easter around the corner and summer setting in soon after.
“We have such a diverse offering of outdoor recreational products in this county, we can bounce back better than others,” Lewis said.
At Sand Hollow, which saw over 1.3 million visitors last year, visits to the state park slowed for the first part of March due to cold, wet and even snowy weather, Park Manager Jonathon Hunt said. January and February were nonetheless busier than normal, he said.
Last Friday was a “really busy day” for the state park in the wake of the cold rain and snow as there was decent weather that day, Hunt said, adding he expects it to get much busier this summer.
“We’re expecting, as the weather improves, to get steadily busier,” Hunt said. “Easter will be bumper-to-bumper. We’re hoping to host as many people as possible.”
Last year, Sand Hollow State Park, neighboring Quail Creek State Park and others had to take to social media to let visitors know when the parks had reached capacity, which reached its max when the parking lots filled up. The parks closed to additional visitors – sometimes as early as 9 a.m. – and stayed that way until full parking lots began to have space open.
The park has since added parking spaces so it can host more people this year.
“We’re hoping our capacity is larger this year,” Hunt said. “We’re hoping that we learned from some of the struggles that we encountered last spring.”
Hunt estimated Sand Hollow has increased the park’s parking capacity to between 800 and 900 vehicles. Boat parking stalls have also increased to 130.
Though Sand Hollow is an outdoor park, Hunt asked that visitors still observe COVID-19 safety measures.
“We’re hoping to see a light at the end of the tunnel as far as COVID restrictions go,” he said. “We want to remind people we still are asking them to follow restrictions and social distance and wear masks if that’s not possible.”
As for Zion National Park, which continues to be one of the most visited national parks in the country, the National Park Service does not record day-to-day numbers, Zion National Park spokesperson Amanda Rowland said.
The NPS does keep track of annual numbers; however, with visits to Zion reaching 3.6 million in 2020, according to an NPS press release, this put the park in the top three most visited national parks for the year behind Yellowstone and Great Smokey Mountains national parks.
“Throughout this pandemic, public lands have provided Americans with space to recreate responsibly,” Rowland said.
COVID-19 safety protocols, such as mask-wearing, social distancing, and so forth, continue to be required within the national park, Rowland added.
Some hotels and business are still worried about the pandemic, Lewis said; however, the release and use of vaccines for the virus has begun to ease some troubled minds.
And while the state will drop its mask mandate on April 10, some individual businesses and store chains will continue to require them for the time being.
Even with the increases in tourism to the area – like they had during the recent Presidents Day holiday weekend that saw a mass influx of visitors – the local health department hasn’t seen a rise in COVID-19 cases related to tourism.
“We’ve seen a steady decline in new cases since the beginning of the year,” said David Heaton, of the Southwest Utah Public Heath Department. “Last spring and summer there were concerns about our-of-area visitors coming into Southern Utah but we didn’t see any surges or outbreaks linked to tourism activity.”
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