While business in Moab is by no means slow this July, hotels, restaurants and store owners have noticed a dip in their sales and occupancy — a summer slump that occurs annually.
“It’s because of the heat — it’s so hot here in July,” said Elaine Gizler, director of the Moab Area Travel Council. “What’s happening now in July is not really unusual. It’s pretty much the norm.”
Compared to record-breaking spring visitation in 2021, the slight slow in tourism feels like a relief. Gizler reported that while Moab’s average occupancy over the entire year is 62%, March 2021 occupancy rose to 76%, a ten-point increase from March 2019. April 2019 occupancy averaged at 75%, while April 2021 occupancy rose to 80%.
“We had such a crazy spring, and that’s due to the pandemic. People have been confined in their homes, plus the fact that people cannot venture outside of the country,” said Gizler.
She reported that Grand County lost an estimated $10 million from international visitation — dollars that tourists from abroad bring into the county — during the pandemic, since international travel essentially ground to a halt.
“We need international travel back because they spend more than domestic travelers and generally, they stay longer,” Gizler said. “That makes a difference.”
In comparison to the spring, July occupancy from 2013 through 2020 has stayed consistently in the 20% range. Visitation usually picks back up in September and October, and Gizler has reported significant growth in November and December. Oppressive heat is one reason why visitors may avoid Moab in late summer. With temperatures reaching well into the triple-digits, tourists head for higher ground and cooler forecasts.
The influx of tourists has put undue pressure on Arches National Park, which has closed its gates early and often since March 2021. Parking lots fill up quickly — often before 7:30 a.m. — as domestic families hustle through the park entrance early in the morning, meaning park rangers must tell late risers to come back three to five hours later. But the park’s Twitter page hasn’t had to announce a park closure since July 10.
Angie Richman, chief of interpretation for Arches and Canyonlands national park, told CNN that “2021 will be our busiest year on record.”
Other popular national parks across the country, including Yosemite, Yellowstone and Great Smoky Mountains have also seen unprecedented increases.
Arches welcomed 1.66 million visitors in 2019 and 1.24 million in 2020 — a decline in over 420,000 visitors. Similarly, Canyonlands decreased from over 730,000 visitors in 2019 to under 500,000 in 2020. Hovenweep National Monument received over 35,000 tourists in 2019 compared to just under 20,000 in 2020, and Natural Bridges decreased from over 88,000 in 2019 to nearly 53,000 tourists in 2020.
The parks’ visitation patterns show that after the near standstill of visitation in spring of 2020, tourism spiked in the summer and fall as domestic tourists flocked to Utah’s wide open spaces. Fall of 2020 was a particularly busy time; Canyonlands’ 2020 visitation increased by 30% in October, 67% in November and 76% in December compared to 2019 numbers. Spring 2021 numbers, park officials predict, will build on that notable increase.
Arches saw similar trends: The fall’s increase in visitors caused frequent temporary closures of the park, usually beginning in the morning until early afternoon. In 2020, Arches had to institute 36 temporary delays in the months of September and October; in 2019, it closed its gates due to overcrowding in only eight days.
While this significant increase in visitation may help make up tourism revenue lost due to the pandemic, the land has suffered. Arches National Park officials have reported more littering, graffiti and drones in the park — all of which are prohibited. Many visitors begin their day’s adventure without the right footwear and without drinking enough water, meaning that park personnel are stretched thin trying to keep visitors safe. The swell in park visitors has also inspired renewed conservation efforts on these protected lands.
“A lot of the first-time visitors are just not familiar with national parks and our mission to preserve these resources,” Richman told NPR.
Though July has offered Moab a short reprieve to catch its breath, Gizler predicts a return to spring numbers this fall. Climbers flock to Moab’s world-class walls and nearby Indian Creek in September and October, while mountain bikers enjoy cooler temperatures on desert trails.
With many schools offering classes online for students, more domestic families than ever hit the road in fall 2020, opting for wide open spaces rather than the four walls of their homes. Most education institutions are returning to in-person instruction in fall of 2021, which could influence Moab’s tourism levels — and possibly allow a return to more manageable numbers.
The Moab Area Travel Council has provided several online resources for visitors, offering advice on how to safely and legally climb, camp, ride off-road vehicles and more in an attempt to educate visitors before they arrive in the desert.
As for Arches, a timed-entry system — like at Yosemite and Rocky Mountain National Parks — may be inevitable. Moab City and Grand County officials have put pressure on the park to establish such a system as early as Labor Day. Shuttles are also another proposed mechanism to manage the hordes of tourists.
“We want visitors to have a great experience, but we also want them to recreate responsibly,” said Gizler. “We need to make sure that we’re protecting what we have locally for years to come.”