At the regular meeting of the Grand County Council on July 3, Moab Area Travel Council Executive Director Elaine Gizler presented a report on tourist spending information from Visa and an update on the amount of transient room tax collected by the county in 2017, which were both reported in the June 28 issue of The Times-Independent. Gizler also discussed local pushback against tourism.
“In recent weeks we’ve had a lot of negativity coming through the newspaper and directly to me,” Gizler said. “ … last Friday I was verbally accosted along with my assistant by a local who was not so pleased with tourism…things are getting a little worrisome.” Gizler emphasized that the Travel Council strictly abides by state code and that the amount they spend on promotion is determined by lawmakers at the state level. “If people have concerns or questions, they need to write letters to the legislators…coming at the Travel Council with all the negativity isn’t really going to solve anything because we’re following the law.”
In response to Gizler’s report, Council Vice Chair Curtis Wells stated his support for the Travel Council, but also noted some of his concerns. Speaking directly to Gizler, Wells said, “you’re in a difficult position because you’re tasked with promoting tourism in a community that has seen increasing volumes of tourism in the last decade that is not a representation of our budgets or our infrastructure.” Wells continued, “It is important for the members of the public to know that this council…is doing everything they can, within the confines of state law, to use TRT money to mitigate the impacts…but there is such a thing as over-commercialization.”
Something that caught Wells’ attention was the fact Grand County ranks fourth out of 29 counties in the amount of TRT collected. He pointed out that Grand is only two percentage points behind Washington County, where Zion National Park and St. George are located. Wells described how Washington County has a more diverse economy and larger tax base when compared to Grand County, which helps them manage high visitation numbers. “We really are strapped,” he said, adding the metaphor that Moab has the bone structure and muscle structure of a 200-pound person that’s carrying weight of a 400 to 500-pound human being.
Wells has found that the complaints about tourism are bipartisan. “There are segments of this community… that would like to see some preservation of the valley and would like to see us proceed in a sustainable fashion,” he said, “It doesn’t fall on party lines.” Wells continued, “the elements of the community that are getting frustrated, they’re not just Democrats, they’re not just Republicans, they’re not just generational locals, they’re not just transplants. It’s a group of people that see the most beautiful place on Earth getting sold out.”
When discussing the dispute over the state law governing the allocation of TRT money, Wells said it was “a debate filled with vitriol and finger pointing.” He expressed his opinion that the law does not provide enough flexibility for a relatively small county like Grand to manage a high volume of tourists. “I think one of the most important things that we can do…is come to a compromise on that state law because there’s going to continue to be efforts to build out flexibility in that law.” Wells noted how tourism has benefitted Moab economy, but he suggested focusing on quality over quantity. “We can shake hands on how do we amend this law so that we have the flexibility of the governing body to scale back marketing in years when tourism volumes are up and if we start to lose market share then to dial that promotional money up,” said Wells.
“It’s a two-way street. People need to tone down the vitriol and realize that we have legal confines that we’re working around to try to provide for a taxing system so we can take care of the infrastructure,” said Wells. Gizler responded by saying the Travel Council does not run any advertising from April through October, instead focusing on building up the shoulder season. Wells answered, “the question is: would we be better off as a community instead of trying to force those people into shoulder seasons to put that [money] into EMS [or] into the infrastructure?”
Wells stated that it should be the county council’s role to stand up and prevent people from scapegoating the Travel Council for issues that are due to “poor planning and poorly structured laws.” Wells added, “The ugliness and the vitriol need to stop.”
Gizler said the Travel Council has partnered with various agencies like the Bureau of Land Management and the Moab Police Department to produce educational videos about topics such as biking, canyoneering and UTVs. “People in the community think we’re just running ads all the time…well we’re not. We’re doing a whole lot more than that.”
There was slight disagreement between Gizler and Wells when it came to the method for changing the law. Gizler suggested citizens write letters to legislators, but Wells said, “If we can agree on a compromise here in Grand County and take a unified message to the hill, that’s a stronger currency than everybody politicking.” Changing the law might be difficult, since Utah’s economy relies so heavily on tourism. “Tourism brings in over $8 billion a year to the State of Utah. It saves every household about $1,200 a year in taxes,” Gizler said. Gizler also added that the lack of proper strategic planning rather than just high volumes of tourism has led to the issues with infrastructure and affordable housing in Moab.
Council Chair Mary McGann concluded the discussion by saying, “between now and January, we as a body should work closely with our Travel Council and come up with what we think would serve a mature rather than a fledgling tourist economy.”