This spring, the tourist economy in Southeast Utah all but ground to a halt in response to COVID-19 restrictions. Rivers and crags were empty, guides were on unemployment and businesses had locked doors. Now, Labor Day numbers show that tourism is making a comeback, but with a different face.
Although nearly every national and state park is seeing fewer visitors than last year, tourism seems to be quickly approaching similar levels despite a mix of park closures, travel restrictions, and economic difficulties stemming from the pandemic.
Despite a heatwave over the holiday weekend that raised temperatures to 107°F, over 70,000 people visited Zion National Park over the Labor Day weekend, according to park officials. This isn’t much lower than the previous few years, where upwards of 80,000 people come to Zion for the holiday weekend.
“Labor Day for us isn’t historically our biggest or busiest weekend, that usually is reserved for Memorial Day. But this weekend seemed particularly intense, just because of the COVID-19 restrictions that the park has put into place,” said Eleanor Siebers, the volunteer program manager for Zion National Park. “I think a lot of people were stir crazy and wanting one last hurrah before their school starts this fall.”
Four of Utah’s Mighty Five national parks have at least some ongoing closures of park areas or infrastructure due to COVID-19. Capitol Reef National Park, the least visited of the five, reopened all recreational opportunities on June 1, including campgrounds and the visitor center with social distancing measures in place.
The heavily-visited Zion and Arches are keeping restrictions on wilderness activities in place, including closing Arches’ Fiery Furnace area and restricting overnight wilderness activities in Zion.
Mask orders remain in some tourist communities, as well. Springdale and Moab require face coverings worn indoors or public spaces where social distancing isn’t possible.
Siebers said that while visitation numbers are approaching that of previous years, she has noticed a demographic shift: the absence of visitors from abroad.
“Those international visitors that usually make up a large portion of our late summer visitation aren’t here,” she said. “We don’t expect to see the big tour bus groups that come through in the fall.”
In their place, Siebers says that the parks are seeing many Americans who have never visited a National Park. Some of these travelers “are making their way outdoors possibly for the first time,” said Siebers.
Carl Dec, the owner of Red River Adventures, said he saw the same pattern on his guided river trips.
“I can’t tell you how many times I picked up the phone to hear ‘This the first time we’re ever doing anything like this. We rented an RV and we’re coming to Utah,’” said Dec.
Not only are officials saying visitation has changed, but so has the tourism economy of guiding services, hotels and restaurants that surrounds the parks. Some businesses are seeing a return of clients and customers, although it seems visitors are planning more spur-of-the-moment trips.
“We never really have much for bookings in August here because August is a bit monsoonal and we were above average for bookings this month,” said Aimee Barnes of The Mountain Guides (formerly Jackson Hole Mountain Guides). “For September, we’re seeing the bookings come in very close to the dates. Nobody is booking a month out or anything like that. Everyone is booking three to nine days out, on average.”
Dec said they also saw a return of business once the lockdowns ended in late May, but the economic impact of early spring closures and the uncertain future put a strain on his business’s season.
“I think we saw the impacts of the lack of European visitation,” Dec said. “We normally stay open until October, but we decided that with what we were likely to see, based reservations for September, that it just made sense from a business perspective to close the doors after Labor Day.”
Visitation numbers approaching previous year