Domestic tourists are still Moab’s bread and butter, but Grand County is attracting an increasingly diverse and international group of travelers every year. These visitors are looking for new activities and ways of experiencing the area.
Local tour operators cite several factors for tourists’ growing interest in Moab as a destination, not the least of which is its increasing presence in major national publications, such as “National Geographic Adventure” and “The New York Times”.
“We had a piece in the American Airlines in-flight magazine,” said Carl Dec, owner of Red River Adventure. “That alone was seen by around 4 million people.”
These publications have helped lead to a change in perspective. Now, Moab is being seen as more than just a gateway to two national parks. This has meant that people who used to spend just a night in town are now spending three or four.
“We have seen a big increase in bookings for two or three activities over several days.” Dec said.
Hollywood is also increasingly turning its lens on Moab as the backdrop for its blockbusters. This summer has seen the filming of both Will Smith’s ‘After Earth’ and Johnny Depp’s remake, ‘The Lone Ranger.’ Along with boosting the local economy, these films increase Moab’s international visibility. This is a big draw for Asian tourists in particular.
“Our Asian guests love the Wild West tours here,” said Naomi Renn, the operations manager of the Gonzo Inn.
According to Arches National Park’s statistics, 30 percent of the 757,781 entrants in 2003 were international travelers. Last year the total number of visitors reached 1,040,758, and though Arches does not have any more recent statistics on international tourists, based on national statistics the percentage should be remain steady. Germany, the U.K and Italy continue to make up the lion’s share of Moab’s international visitors. However, the number of Italian tourists has surged in recent years, while the numbers from other European countries have remained relatively stagnant.
“One of the biggest questions I get at trade shows is, ‘What’s new and unique in Moab?’ Tour operators say many of their clients come back to Moab and want to do something different than the traditional activities,” said Marian DeLay, director of the Moab Area Travel Council.
Adventure sports like mountain biking, canyoneering and river rafting are the big draw for these groups.
“Europeans come mostly for the water and are into the extreme stuff. When I have a German come in and ask about rafting or kayaking, I now just assume they are looking for class 3 or 4 water,” said Jamie Pearce, a manager at Moab Adventure Center.
This combination of European and domestic interest in more active, adventure tourism has helped to create a reinforcing cycle; bringing in money which expands the industry, thereby attracting more people.
“Ten years ago people thought Moab was just the place you got groceries from when you visited Arches. Now everyone knows about it. People come, then tell their friends about it, post pictures online, and more and more people become aware of what’s here,” Dec said.
While Europe may still bring the most foreign tourists into Moab, the number of visitors from developing countries, particularly Brazil, is increasing. “Brazil has discovered Utah,” DeLay said. “They originally came in the winter for skiing but are now realizing that there is so much more to see.”
China is another developing country that has been making its presence felt in Utah. Chinese tourists have become particularly sought after in America because of the amount of money that they spend while on vacation, nearly $6,000 per visit compared to the $4,000 average for other nationalities, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s annual report.
The drive to attract Chinese travelers is also fueled by the massive increase in visas issued to mainlanders, which has risen 438 percent since 2004 and is expected to become America’s biggest in-bound market by 2016, according to the U.S. Travel Association. However, despite the increase in Chinese tourism to Arches and Canyonlands national parks, Moab has yet to find a way to take full advantage of this lucrative demographic.
David Huang, the head of the Chinese tour company China Host, said 90 percent of Chinese tourists travel on bus tours.
“These tours move quickly between destinations and tend to stay in less expensive areas, like Green River, rather than in Moab itself,” DeLay said.
The increase in tourism from developing countries is in part due to the Travel Promotion Act (TPA), which was passed by the Obama administration in 2010 as a result of pressure from the tourism industry. The TPA created a tourism marketing and promotional fund, and streamlined the process for obtaining a US tourist visa for residents of countries like Mexico, Brazil and China, the three largest applicant countries. Earlier this year Obama promised to further increase the visa processing capacity for these countries by 40 percent.
The increasing Asian demand for more traditional, bus-based site seeing, coupled with domestic and European tourists interest in adventure sports, means that Moab’s tourism industry will most likely grow in both directions. The unparalleled terrain that Grand County offers will continue to draw adrenaline junkies and shutterbugs alike.
“Moab has it all,” Dec said. “People have opened up businesses for eco-tourism, star gazing, deep desert hiking, you name it. It seems like in Moab ‘if you build it, they will come.’”