Mile Post: Brighter days for tourism?
As the coronavirus pandemic hit in the spring of 2020 and forced an early end to what was on pace to be a record-breaking ski season, it was clear that the health crisis would be a blow to Park City’s tourism industry. The questions were how much would it hurt, and for how long.
The answers won’t be entirely clear until the pandemic is over for good. But fortunately for Park City and those who depend on the health of the town’s tourism industry, the fallout has not been nearly as bad as many initially feared.
And as the 2021-22 winter approaches, there is plenty to be happy about, said Jennifer Wesselhoff, who leads the organization tasked with promoting Park City as a tourist destination.
Wesselhoff, the president and CEO of the Park City Chamber/Bureau, is not ready to declare that tourism will see a return to pre-pandemic levels this ski season given the lingering uncertainty about how the coronavirus will affect travel — not to mention unpredictable snow conditions — but trends are pointing in the right direction.
“I’m definitely optimistic,” she said. “I think maybe cautiously optimistic is probably the best way to describe that.”
One of the factors that will ultimately determine the success of this winter is whether the international travel market, which cratered last spring, will rebound. Wesselhoff said the local tourism industry won’t be fully recovered until that happens, but the prospects remain unclear as countries around the globe continue to grapple with the pandemic.
But as Wesselhoff contemplates the upcoming ski season, she is encouraged by the performance last winter, when the pandemic conditions were much worse. International travelers weren’t coming, vaccinations weren’t widely available and coronavirus case counts in Utah and the rest of the country were skyrocketing. Visitors came to Park City nonetheless — the state set a new record with 5.3 million skier days, for instance, though occupancy numbers in town were down compared to before the pandemic — and spent enough money to keep the economy afloat even in the absence of the Sundance Film Festival.
She characterized the winter as “way better than what anyone expected.”
“We’re really, really lucky that we made it,” she said. “And we outperformed any of our guesses of how we thought we were going to perform. With that being said, we were still down like 30%, you know. … So it’s not like we’re breaking any records.”
While the Chamber/Bureau does not yet have robust data about this summer’s performance, Wesselhoff said the early returns were strong. And it’s clear to anyone who has visited Main Street during, say, the Park Silly Sunday Market or who has sat in a midsummer traffic jam that the town is packed with visitors.
Like last summer, Wesselhoff said, people have flocked to Park City for its outdoor recreation. It’s helped that Summit County has the highest vaccination rate in Utah and that COVID case counts have been relatively low even as numbers have risen elsewhere.
Those factors will hopefully also propel the tourism industry going forward as it continues to recover from the pandemic, she said.
“Park City has a lot of the attributes that people are looking for right now, as they’re thinking about how to travel safely and how to do it in a way that will keep their families safe,” she said.
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