Cloud of potential government shutdown overhangs otherwise cheery tourism conference in St. George

ST. GEORGE — Concern over a possible government shutdown this Sunday loomed over the 19th annual Utah Tourism Conference held this week. 

Vicki Varela, managing director of the Utah Office of Tourism, speaks to the members of the 19th annual Utah Tourism Conference, St. George, Utah, Sept. 27, 2023 | Photo by Stephanie DeGraw, St. George News

After welcoming some 400 international and state tourism leaders to Southern Utah and the “war room,” Vicki Varela, managing director of the Utah Office of Tourism, called the status of the economy very ambiguous.

“Some people within the community, their businesses are thriving and others are struggling,” Varela told St. George News. “Over the last two weeks, the uncertainty has settled on our nation, and it looks like the federal government will shut down on the 1st of October. So that adds a significant, dramatic complexity to a situation already full of uncertainty.”

Utah’s economy is in the top third in the nation. Varela said the volume of economic activity driven by national parks in the Beehive state brings in $2.6 billion annually. 

“Fortunately, our governor has gone into an amazing problem-solving mode, to reach out to the U.S. Department of Interior and say, ‘We’ve got to figure out a way to keep these parks open,’” Varela said. “Both because we have visitors from all over the world who have planned, in many cases, trips of a lifetime to be here with us in these spectacular places, and because we have communities that want to welcome those visitors and want and need the economic stability that the visitor economy provides.”

She said Utah leaders are in “very high gear” to work with the federal government to avoid shutting down the national parks.

“We’re coming for a tourism conference and we’re coming for a war run to try to figure out a path to have stability through the federal shutdown,” she added. “Nobody knows how long it will last, but there are a lot of projections about it being a relatively long shutdown.”

Varela pointed to a bright note: Utah has strongly recovered since the COVID-19 pandemic. She said she looked forward to discussing the future of a sustainable visitor economy with attendees. 

One of the locations conference attendees visited, the Copper Rock Golf Course in Hurricane, Utah, date not specified | Photo courtesy of Copper Rock Championship, St. George News

The conference also focused on how the state travel industry will work between the public and the private sectors to build a perpetual visitor economy. Varela said that effort is framed under the red emerald strategic plan, which focuses on quality visitation and quality of life for communities, as well as how the visitor economy shapes the area and the ways that local communities want it shaped. 

“We want really high-quality visitation and by that, we don’t mean just people spending a lot of money; we need people having high-quality trips where they stay long enough to immerse themselves in the community,” Varela said, “where visitors learn to understand how to travel in desert climates and are in our snow climates, and how to travel responsibly so they don’t hurt themselves and they don’t hurt the environment.”

It’s been 10 years since the event was held in Southern Utah and Brittany McMichael, director of the Greater Zion Convention and Tourism Office, told St. George News that “so much has changed in the area since that time.”

Attendees were given tours of popular places in between workshops. Keynote speakers at this year’s edition of the Utah Tourism Conference include Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, Black Folks Camp Too Founder Earl B. Hunter Jr., Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute Chief of Staff Jennifer Robinson, Utah Film Commission Director Virginia Pearce, and Virgin Unite Co-Founder and CEO Jean Oelwang, in addition to a myriad industry leaders and experts speaking on several issues and trends relating to Utah’s remarkable tourism industry.

In a news release, the Utah Tourism Industry Association Executive Director Natalie Randall said that fostering a connected community of industry professionals is their top priority. 

“This year’s conference content reflects the industry’s ever-evolving nature with topics such as adeptly navigating public relations, the balance of destination marketing and management, international tourism updates, supporting diversification of traditional industry through agritourism, harnessing new technologies such as AI and more,” Randall said. 

The Utah Tourism Industry Association is a nonprofit organization that advocates and educates to enhance Utah’s economy and quality of life. Learn more on this website.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2023, all rights reserved.

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