Gateway communities illustrate the economic impact of Southern Utah’s national parks

ST. GEORGEIn 2020, national parks across the U.S. attracted 237 million visitors and generated $28.6 billion in economic output. 

File photo of an aerial view of Springdale, Utah, date not specified | Photo by Lochner engineering firm and courtesy of the Zion Regional Collaborative, St. George News

As high as those figures seem, they actually represent a 28% decline in overall visitation and a 31% drop in visitor spending that can be attributed, at least in part, to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gateway communities – cities or towns like just outside park boundaries – felt the squeeze most acutely, especially when the National Park Service started closing parks at the onset of the pandemic.

“When Zion National Park closed in March, Springdale was pretty much a ghost town,” said Springdale Mayor Stan Smith. “There was no business and no revenue coming in, and we were quite concerned with how the year would turn out.”

However, once the park reopened near the end of May 2020, Springdale saw an increase in visitors compared to previous years and the park experienced several months of record-breaking visitation that has continued into 2021.

In this May 2021 file photo, visitors line up for the shuttle at Bryce Canyon National Park in Bryce Canyon, Utah| Photo courtesy of Bryce Canyon National Park’s Facebook page, St. George News

Jean Seiler, public relations specialist and former city manager of Bryce Canyon City said his community saw similar highs and lows to those experienced outside Zion, noting that one of the biggest surprises following the parks’ reopening was the demographic shift in visitors.

“We haven’t had any international travel for almost two years,” Seiler said. “Before, at Bryce Canyon, 60-70% of our visitors were international. Something that’s been interesting, last year especially and then as well the first part of this year, is that lots of Americans are really tapping into recreation.”

Breaking down spending at local parks

The National Park Service released its report on 2020 visitor spending effects in June. According to the report, visitors spent $14.5 billion in communities within 60 miles of a national park, and 83% of jobs supported by visitor spending were in communities located within 50 miles of a park.

To illustrate his community’s reliance on park visitors, Smith used the Springdale budget as an example. Despite bringing in around $74,000 in annual property taxes, the town’s revenues exceed $4 million thanks in large part to sales tax revenue generated by tourists.

“It’s like a marriage: whatever we do in Springdale has an impact on the park, and whatever the park does has an impact on us,” Smith said. “There’s a lot of people that come through our little community, and it causes some problems but at the same time it brings a lot of benefits.”

Approximately 3.6 million people visited Zion in 2020, spending an estimated $208 million in its gateway communities. The report stated that visitor spending supported 3,460 jobs, $81.0 million in labor income, $143 million in value added, and $277 million in economic output for regional economies.

Bryce Canyon National Park welcomed 1.5 million visitors in 2020. Travelers spent about $125 million while visiting Bryce Canyon, supporting a total of 1,810 jobs, $47.0 million in labor income, $83.3 million in value added, and $151 million in economic output.

Mountain biking on Thunder Mountain Trail in Red Canyon, Utah, date not specified | Photo courtesy of Ruby’s Inn, St. George News

While lodging and restaurants dominated visitor spending at both parks (and nationwide), the most notable difference between the two was the impact of recreation industries. 

Around 8% of total visitor spending at Bryce Canyon went to recreation, compared to just 2% at Zion. Sales and rentals on everything from RVs and motorhomes to ATVs and bicycles played a significant part in Bryce Canyon’s economy last year, Seiler said.

“We’ve seen a big influx of people enjoying bikes,” he said. “We’re fortunate to have a paved bike trail that goes from Red Canyon to Inspiration Point in Bryce Canyon, and we’ve never seen it as busy as it’s been this past year.”

Community effects of tourist dollars

Residents and visitors alike might wonder, “Where does all this money go?” 

Besides the private businesses and residents that take home their share of the money in profits and wages, much of the spending by visitors in gateway communities is ultimately funneled into public projects related to infrastructure and community development. 

In this February 2014 file photo, children and families skate on the ice rink outside Ruby’s Inn in Bryce Canyon, Utah | Photo courtesy of Ruby’s Inn/Bryce Canyon Country Tourism Office, St. George News

For example, at Bryce Canyon City the community partnered with the National Park Service to build facilities for the shuttle service, including a shuttle station, stops and a parking lot for visitors’ vehicles.

More recently, the community has expanded public safety services and invested in infrastructure to improve internet access. In addition, some of the money gathered from taxes will be reinvested into recreation facilities to continue to attract more visitors year-round. 

“For years we’ve offered ice skating and cross country skiing, just to try to get the message out that the park’s open in the winter,” Seiler said. “We’re now starting to develop a refrigerated facility for an ice rink, and hopefully it’ll open this next winter season.”

These secondary effects of direct visitor spending account for most of the difference between visitor spending and total economic output, practically doubling the impact of visitor spending over time.

In Springdale, the town officials have expanded the police force over the past decade, to the point where it now accounts for the largest portion of the town’s annual expenditures. Springdale also has an extensive shuttle system and a number of parking lots and shuttle stops to accommodate the growing number of tourists.

In this May 2018 file photo, Stan Smith cuts the ribbon at the ceremony celebrating the the completion of the SR-9 Renewed reconstruction project, Springdale, Utah | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

The City of Springdale just purchased more land near the existing George A. Barker River Park, and intends to use the acquisition to expand the park’s boundaries. While he said he was excited for what the larger space would provide for locals, Smith acknowledged that ultimately it would also benefit the visitors who helped pay for its purchase.

“Springdale is able to do what we can do because of the tourists,” Smith said. “We can buy our parks. We can have beautiful streets. We can have a shuttle system. We can have the community center that we have, we’re very lucky to have the things that we have, but at the same time we have to share it with the 4.5 million people that come through.”

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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