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US Tourists Heeding Utah's 'Mighty 5' Campaign Overpower Moab

01:35  22 september  2019
01:35  22 september  2019 Source:   online.wsj.com

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MOAB , Utah —Six years ago, Utah tourism officials launched a “ Mighty 5 ” marketing campaign to entice more visitors to the state’ s spectacular national parks. State officials got more than they bargained for. Frustrated locals are now dealing with the consequences of the explosive growth that

Tourists Heeding Utah ’ s ‘ Mighty 5 ’ Campaign Overpower Moab (wsj.com).

MOAB, Utah—Six years ago, Utah tourism officials launched a “Mighty 5” marketing campaign to entice more visitors to the state’s spectacular national parks. State officials got more than they bargained for.

a group of people sitting on a rock© Niki Chan Wylie for The Wall Street Journal

Frustrated locals are now dealing with the consequences of the explosive growth that followed. The five parks—Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands and Arches—have soared to 10.6 million visitors in 2018 from 6.3 million in 2013, a 68% increase that state officials say was due in large part to the advertising. Other factors, they say, included the national economic recovery and social media.

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Few places have seen the impact more than this city of 5,300, which sits beneath towering red rock cliffs near the entrances to two of the parks: Arches and Canyonlands. Once known as a relaxed getaway for mountain biking and four-wheeling, Moab is being swarmed by 3 million visitors annually. On peak days, visitors create hourlong waits at restaurants, empty store shelves and turn the city’s quaint Main Street into a parking lot.

“It’s like the area is being loved to death,” said Kathy Shafer, 59 years old, a technical writer currently living in Logan, Utah, who for now has given up on plans to retire to her former hometown. “I go home and it just breaks my heart.”

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With infrastructure and facilities strained, officials in the parks and their gateway communities have pushed back on both state and local promotion efforts. Grand County, which includes Moab, in June opted not to pursue a $250,000 state grant to aim more marketing at prospective visitors in Texas and Illinois. In February, the county put a six-month moratorium on the issuance of hotel building permits.

“We’re trying to balance what we can do with what we’ve got,” said Moab Mayor Emily Niehaus.

Even the state has decided to put on the brakes. After hearing the complaints, the Utah Office of Tourism, which ran the Mighty 5 campaign between 2013 and 2015, has spent the past three years trying to disperse the crowds from the national parks to lesser-known federal preserves and state parks. The state continues to promote the parks as the “Mighty 5” on its website, including an ad that recommends “The Road to Mighty” to reach other destinations.

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“The marketing was working, and we were attracting people,” said Vicki Varela, Utah’s tourism director. “And we were also creating impacts that needed to be mitigated.”

Other national parks in the West have seen big increases in visitors. Visits to Rocky Mountain National Park soared 53% between 2013 and 2018, while they jumped 39% at the Grand Canyon over the same time. Overall visits to the 419 national-park units, which include sites such as national monuments and historic battlefields in addition to national parks, rose 16% over that time, a boost that National Park Service officials say was due in part to a federal “Find Your Park” campaign to help commemorate the agency’s 2016 centennial.

Utah officials say they conceived the Mighty 5 campaign, in part, after a hoped-for surge in tourism to the Beehive State failed to materialize following the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Television ads placed in various markets beginning in 2013 highlighted the stunning scenery of the state’s national parks.

That first year, nearly 400,000 people traveled to Utah after seeing Mighty 5 ads and by 2015 the number had soared to 1.7 million, according to research conducted for the state. “We actually visited the Mighty 5 because of the advertising,” said Kevin Milburn, a consultant from Houston. “We are now hooked on national parks.”

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That kind of appeal has pushed many of the parks to the limit. At Arches National Park, 4 miles north of Moab, Superintendent Kate Cannon said the preserve has hit a daily traffic count of more than 3,000 vehicles at least six times so far this year after doing so twice last year and only rarely in the years prior.

Ms. Cannon said the biggest problem is too many people wanting to visit between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. “We don’t have too many people coming to Arches,” said Ms. Cannon, whose park has seen annual visitors grow by 55% since 2013 to 1.7 million. “We have too many people coming at one time.”

On Sunday of this past Labor Day weekend, Seattle visitors Sam Starr and Johanna Brunner arrived to find the park closed for three hours due to overcrowding. They returned before dawn the next day to make the arduous, 1.5-mile hike to Delicate Arch.

“We knew it would be super packed, so we woke up and came,” Mr. Starr, 25, said as the first rays of sunlight illuminated Utah’s most celebrated arch.

The tourism onslaught has caused problems all around. On adjoining state desert land, Michael Grindstaff recently drove an all-wheel-drive vehicle past juniper and pinyon trees that were littered with scraps of toilet paper, windblown remnants of unpermitted campers having done their business.

To help encourage better behavior, the Moab Area Travel Council on July 4 launched a marketing campaign called “Do It Like a Moab Local,” which offers visitors tips such as where in the wild to pack up solid human waste in approved bags.

Other impacts could prove more challenging to resolve. There simply aren’t enough restaurants to handle all the demand. And affordable housing is drying up so fast in many places that employers are scrambling to find accommodations for their workers.

The Moab Adventure Center in early September finished construction on a $1 million dormitory building for 64 of its employees, said Brian Merrill, chief executive officer of Western River Expeditions, which owns the outfitter of four-wheel-drive and other tours.

Mr. Merrill doesn’t blame Mighty 5 for everything. “I feel like [state tourism officials] were vilified because they were so successful,” said Mr. Merrill, who sits on a state tourism advisory board. “The challenge for us here is to learn how to manage it.”

Write to Jim Carlton at [email protected]

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