PARK CITY — Despite the struggling economy, Utah's tourism industry is generating plenty of dollars for the state thanks in part to high interest from foreign travelers.
Last year, the Beehive State took in around $6.9 billion on total travel spending from an estimated 22 million visitors — a 6.1 percent jump in revenue over 2010, according to the Utah Office of Tourism.
Travelers generated $842 million in state and local taxes, the state tourism office said. In 2010, Utah hosted more than 20 million visitors who spent $6.5 billion.
Much of that increased spending came from hundreds of thousands of overseas visitors.
"The average Chinese tourist spends $6,000 per visit to the U.S.," said Leigh von der Esch, Utah Office of Tourism executive director.
In an effort to bolster that interest and boost revenues, the state will spend $9 million on marketing this year, up from $7 million a year ago, von der Esch said.
Speaking Friday at the 2012 Discover Utah Tourism Summit hosted at Deer Valley Resort, von der Esch noted that even in the down economy, the state had several private developers build new luxury hotel properties — which she attributed to confidence in Utah's ability to attract leisure travelers.
"When they were completed, it got us the distinction of the No. 1 luxury destination for 2011,which the state has never seen before," she said. "We've always been known for national parks, outdoor recreation, great skiing. Now we're known for luxury travel (too)."
Von der Esch noted that travel and tourism also brings in thousands of jobs, both part-time and full-time. In Utah, tourism accounts for almost 123,000 jobs in travel and related industries. Travel is the sixth leading employer in Utah and nationwide, she said.
"Between January 2010 and June 2012, travel was a net job creator in 25 of 30 months," von der Esch said.
Tourism and travel is an especially important job creator in many of Utah's rural communities, she noted, citing areas such as Moab in Grand County and Torrey in Wayne County where national parks are major economic drivers.
Nationally, the travel and tourism industry is adding 9,100 jobs per month, according to Robert Bobo, communications director for the U.S. Travel Association and featured speaker at the conference.
"That really speaks to the power that the travel industry has in bringing back America's economy," Bobo said.
The growth of international travel to the United States is a key factor in the employment increase in the industry, as well as contributing to the country's economic vitality, he said.
"Each international traveler is spending, on average, more than $4,000 while they are here," Bobo said. "That's very helpful to local communities and states nationwide."
Growth in the international tourist sector is expected to continue for the foreseeable future, he said, as the nation embarks on an unprecedented campaign to market itself more to foreign visitors.
"The United States for many years did not do that," Bobo said. "We recently set up Brand USA, marketing the U.S. to some strategic countries (such as) France, Germany, the U.K. and Japan."