Travel Council: International tourists spent more than domestic visitors

Howard Trenholme, chair of the Moab Area Travel Council advisory board, laments at Tuesday’s county council meeting, what he calls a lack of respect from the Grand County Council. Photo by Doug McMurdo

International visitors with VISA credit cards spent about $10 million in Moab in 2018. Hotel and motel occupancy rates that year averaged between 60 and 70 percent, and transient room tax collections through the end of May were down about $300,000 from the same time last year, according to the annual Moab Area Travel Council report for 2018 that Executive Director Elaine Gizler presented at Tuesday’s Grand County Council meeting.

The calculations were based on May 2018 to May 2019 figures.

Gizler said domestic spending lagged behind international visitor spending, as calculated through VISA card transactions.

Overnight lodging occupancy rates averaged in the 65 percent range during that time period, giving Gizler confidence that there is room for growth in the so-called “shoulder seasons” of summer and winter. The average daily rate has been flat for the last three years and rates will likely drop further once properties now under development are open, she said.

Gizler said she’s trying to get occupancy rates for campgrounds with no success, and using traffic counters set out by the Utah Department of Transportation don’t really help because the counters don’t differentiate between visitors, locals and pass-through traffic.

The $300,000 decrease in TRT taxes did not seem overly concerning to Gizler or the council. “This is where we’re tracking,” she said, adding the Travel Council is monitoring tax numbers from county departments for comparison purposes.

Gizler highlighted the Travel Council’s key accomplishments in 2018, which include the completion of the Outdoor Adventure Guide – an 18-month effort – added the Moab First Sustainable Page to the improved Discover Moab website, completed the Dinosaur Diamond map, trained over 300 travel agents in the U.S., Canada, Germany, France and the United Kingdom on how to sell Moab to clients, surveyed 400 visitors and learned 72 percent would return to Moab, launched the Denver SkyWest marketing program for Canyonlands Airport, and created three educational videos focusing on canyoneering, dark skies, and mountain biking, among other milestones.

Howard Trenholme, chair of the Moab Area Travel Council advisory board, expressed disappointment with the council’s “disrespect.” He said council members who are liaisons to the Travel Council board rarely attend the meetings they’re assigned to cover.

He said the Travel Council and its board exist “only to benefit this community.”

Council members Curtis Wells and Mary McGann have been actively lobbying the state to amend how counties in Utah must spent TRT tax. The current formula requires 47 percent to be spent on promoting tourism, a figure Grand and other tourist-based Utah counties want to see changed so that more revenue could be put into mitigating the impacts of tourism.

Wells asked Trenholme how he felt about the allocation. “The sales tax is great,” said Trenholme, but when “95 percent of the county is federal land, we’re being made to support (federal) activities.”

McGann said there were “real difficult hurdles to jump over” trying to get the Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies to add a sales tax to campsites. In light of that, the county has changed the wording from “tax” to “impact fee” and is working closely with the county’s congressional delegation to push through federal legislation that would supplement county coffers.

Trenholme said the public campgrounds, when they are full, is when Grand County residents truly feel the diminished quality of life issues, and those people are largely camping and leaving without buying anything or paying any taxes for services, which include law enforcement and emergency medical services. Other resources include solid waste and trash pickup.

“We need to have these discussions up front so when the bill is in the legislature … were are all in unison and on the same page,” said Wells.

The affordable housing shortage also was discussed. Trenholme said his “biggest fear” is Moab will get a bad reputation for poor service at local restaurants, where wait times can be lengthy. He said tourists expect “excellent service” and that isn’t happening. He blamed the problem on a shortage of workers.