By Tom Wharton, The Salt Lake Tribune -- Ask travelers about visiting Utah, and chances are they will talk about national parks, red rock scenery and ski resorts nestled in the midst of snow-capped mountains.
The reality, though, is that Salt Lake City remains the single biggest generator of tourism revenue. Visit Salt Lake President and CEO Scott Beck said that tracking expenditures on hotels, restaurants and rental cars will verify that.
"The longer I am in this role, it’s very apparent to me that people do not see the Wasatch Front as a tourism destination," said Beck in a year-end interview inside his office in the Salt Palace. "When they think Utah tourism, they think red rock and snow, the canyons of southern Utah and the snow-capped mountains of Park City. Salt Lake by any measure is the biggest generator of tourism revenue."
Utah’s largest city, though, has been regarded as a hub by many authors for years.
Consider this quote from the 1941 Work Project Administration guide to Utah:
"From the time of its settlement, an air of the incredible has attended Salt Lake City … Travelers have forever been coming to see for themselves ‘the new Jerusalem,’ the ‘Utah Zion,’ ‘the City of Saints.’ In all but a handful of books written on Utah and the Mormons during the first 30 years of the city’s existence, the Mormon capital was Utah, a way of thinking not yet entirely disposed of."
Beck and Visit Salt Lake are doing their best to promote Salt Lake County as a tourism destination. Several national publications giving the area high marks in the past two years certainly haven’t hurt that perception either.
National Geographic rated Salt Lake City as the best hiking city in America. AARP Magazine wrote that Salt Lake City offers the best city sunrise. TripAdvisor rated the Grand America Hotel as the second best luxury hotel in Utah and in 2011 ranked Salt Lake City as the number one American bargain for skiing. Forbes gave the same ranking to Alta and Snowbird.
Temple Square and the headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are the obvious big draw for tourists from around the area as well as the world.
But Beck said Salt Lake City has become popular as a tourism destination as well.
"We have seen with the opening of City Creek that Salt Lake City is getting increased attention in the Intermountain region," said Beck. "We are seeing a significant increase in visitation from places such as St. George and Boise. We are not just a place for convention visitors, but a place for leisure travel, shopping and dining."
He said food enthusiasts are coming to Salt Lake to experience new dining options such as Forage, Pallet and Pago or old standbys such as the Red Iguana.
The Salt Lake Connect Pass, which can be purchased for one, two, three or 365 days, offers discounts of 45 to 80 percent on admission to attractions such as the Clark Planetarium, Discovery Gateway, Leonardo, Lion House restaurant, Natural History Museum of Utah, Red Butte Garden, Snowbird, Thanksgiving Point, This is the Place Heritage Park, Tracy Aviary, the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, the Utah Olympic Park and Hogle Zoo.
Cultural attractions such as the Utah Symphony, Ballet West, Utah Opera, theater and dance companies and concert venues such as the Capitol Theater, Energy Solutions Arena, USANA amphitheater, the Maverik Center, Red Butte Garden, Kingsbury Hall, Pioneer Memorial Theater and Sandy Amphitheater are all major draws.
Beck said the new Utah Performing Arts Center being built in the heart of the city will also dramatically increase offerings.
Salt Lake County is also a major hub for Intermountain area sports, serving as the home to the Utah Jazz, Real Salt Lake, University of Utah football, basketball and gymnastics, the Salt Lake Bees and the Utah Grizzlies.
The new TRAX line from the Salt Lake airport into the heart of the city and the University of Utah cultural district has also become a major draw for visiting tourists said Beck.
Beck said the city also is redefining the term "apres ski" with its close proximity to 11 major ski resorts offering an urban environment unmatched in the United States.
"We have redefined the term ski destination," he said. "There are few things we own … No one can own are credibility as a viable ski destination."
Beck said that he travels the world, he is pleased that people are beginning to recognize Salt Lake City has a major metropolitan area to visit.