Grand County’s tourism industry has performed well so far this season.
“We are seeing good numbers as far as visitation this year,” said Marian DeLay, the executive director of the Moab Area Travel Council.
“I definitely think we are busier than last year,” agreed Vanessa Scow, a manager at Zax.
The compound effect of the tourism industry’s solid performance and this year’s increase in the Transient Room Tax (TRT), has meant that nearly a third more tax revenue has been collected this year over previous years, DeLay said.
The TRT, which is a tax on all nightly hotel and private campsite rentals of less than 30 days was raised by 1.25-percent in January of this year to a total tax of 4.25-percent. 4.25-percent is the maximum TRT allowed by state law.
State law mandates that the money collected through the TRT be used to either promote tourism or to mitigate its impact. Historically, two thirds of the revenue collected by Grand County went towards tourism advertisements. The remaining third was allocated to brick and mortar projects or services designed to help reduce the impacts of tourism on the community.
With this year’s increase, the additional 1.25 percent now being charged will almost all go to capital projects and services, dividing the total 4.25 percent into 2 percent for advertising and 2.25 percent for mitigating the impacts from tourism.
Statewide indicators are also promising; total traveler spending in Utah increased by 7.8-percent last year and national park visitation in the state were up by 4-percent, according to numbers released by the state.
National parks in the Moab area have been doing even better than the state average. Arches National Park visitation numbers through June of this year were up 7.8-percent over last year, according to the Moab Area Travel Council.
And while visitation to Canyonlands National Park is up 6.6-percent over last year, the park’s Island in the Sky District, the most popular area of the national park and the section closest to Moab, is up 9.1-percent.
These numbers indicate that the amount of first time visitors to Moab is most likely on the rise, said DeLay, since the number of people going through Arches National Park and Island in the Sky are a particularly good gauge of first time tourist traffic through the area.
The rising number of visitors to the area in recent years has taken an increasing toll on local infrastructure, widening the gap between the services the county provides and the funds to pay for them. It was for this reason that the county decided to raise the TRT.
TRT income for Grand County has increased over the years from $1,631,941 in 2002; to $2,356,178 in 2007; to $2,495,148 last year. If the 32-percent increase in this year’s revenue stays constant for the rest of the year then the county will have collected approximately $3,293,595 in TRT by the end of the year.
However, the 32-percent increase in TRT revenue to-date over the same period last year is not indicative of a 32-percent increase in tourism to the area.
“We are not measuring apples to apples,” DeLay said. “If we were where we used to be (charging 3-percent TRT) it would be 3-percent (growth over this time last year).”
There is some concern that the high tax rate on accommodation in Moab is upsetting visitors.
“At checkout what a lot of guests may not have asked at check-in is what is the tax percentage,” said Steve Wang, the managing director of Quintstar, a management firm that runs several hotels in town, including the Ramada Inn, Best Western Greenwell Inn and River Canyon Lodge. “So we get a tax shock. The hotel bed tax is 13.6-percent.”
Wang said that in the next several years the price of rooms in Moab, and nationwide, will have to fall.
“Basically the state of the industry is that the consumer demand has fallen behind the hotel rates. The industry is predicting a market correction within the next two to three years,” he said. “If you look at the numbers from the travel council it’s the same thing; it’s a softer year.”
Marlene Rodriguez, the general manager at La Quinta Inn, agreed.
“It does seem softer. At the beginning of the season there was higher volume, but June and July have seemed weak,” she said.
One of the factors that Rodriguez cited for the lower number of guests this year is that there have not been as many film crews staying in town for as long as last year.
Although two movies – “Need For Speed” and “Transformers 4” – were shot in Moab this year, neither crew stayed in town for as long as the crews from “After Earth” or “The Lone Ranger” did last year.
However, the publicity from last year’s movies, particularly “The Lone Ranger”, could help to both increase tourism numbers in coming years, as well as bring in more movie crews, said Tara Penner, the director of the Moab to Monument Valley Film Commission.
“I definitely have other film companies that are contacting me and saying they saw ‘The Lone Ranger’ and that they want to film where they filmed,” Penner said.
Low water levels on the Colorado River also affected the landscape of Moab’s tourism industry this year.
“The business is still there, but the trips are harder for our guides because the river is slower and lower. None of these sections at 2,400 cfs (cubic feet per second) stand on their own, you need to make the trip about the entire experience,” said Carl Dec, the owner of Red River Expeditions.
“When the river is big and white it’s a pretty easy trip to do,” he said. “When the water is low that’s when the guides need to pull in their knowledge of the area to make the trip more than just about the white water.”
However, lower water levels have helped other businesses, Dec said, such as stand up paddleboarding, which is safer and easier to do when the water is flowing at a slower pace.
It is that diversity of activities for different age groups and skill levels available in Moab that many local operators believe is what keeps visitors coming to Grand County in greater and greater numbers.
“We have new trails and different activities like hiking and canyoneering. We are definitely a place that people associate with lots of different things. Even within the tourism vein there is a lot to do here,” said Kirstin Peterson, the co-owner of Rim Tours.
“There are 92 different things to do here listed on TripAdvisor,” Dec said. “Whereas five or seven years ago there were less than 20.”
The mix of what visitors are spending their money on within a business has changed as well, said Jaime Pearce, a manager at the Moab Adventure Center.
“Overall we are up about 14-percent in trips. In retail we are down probably at least 15-percent,” she said. “One of the things that I have noticed is that my custom private tours are down.”
In the future the U.S. Department of Commerce predicts that the number of foreign travelers coming to America will only increase. This year 69.6 million international visitors are predicted to come to the U.S. That number is projected to grow by 4-percent annually for the next six years.
And tourism businesses in Grand County feel that Moab is well positioned to take advantage of these growing numbers, as well as to continue bringing in domestic tourists.
“It always seems like there are more and more people coming,” Dec said. “Moab’s been doing well.”