SALT LAKE CITY – Tourists love Utah's ski resorts, red rock formations and fine restaurants. It's finding something to do once the sun sets that's giving the state an image problem.
Restrictive state liquor laws, city ordinances and a negative association with the Mormon church are causing headaches for those trying to get tourists to spend more money here and change the perception that Utah is anything but hip.
Tourism is a growing $5.45 billion industry in Utah, but its domestic market share has steadily shrunk in the past decade, even following the 2002 Winter Olympics.
A nationwide image survey conducted for the Utah Office of Tourism this year shows a perception that there's a dearth of entertainment for adults.
Leigh Von Der Esch, the office's executive director, knows it can take years to change perceptions. The tourism office has started an $11 million advertising campaign, focusing on attracting affluent outdoor adventure-travelers and educating them about local nightlife once they're here.
The top complaints the Salt Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau receives are that there's not much nightlife and it's difficult to get a drink. The complaints begin before tourists even arrive, said Shawn Stinson, director of communications for the bureau.
"We're the first to say Salt Lake has excellent bars and restaurants throughout the city. They are just not in a densely populated area," he said. "We feel that is definitely a drawback to the Salt Lake experience."
City law prohibits more than two bars from operating on the same city block face. Downtown, the average city block is 660 feet long — 300 feet longer than a football field. Other Utah cities, including the ski resort town of Park City, don't have that limit.
Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson wants the restriction in Utah's most-visited city lifted. He said the perception is that tourists have to go to Park City — about 25 miles away — to have fun.
"We want to create a walkable, lively and hospitable downtown. It's crucial," he said. "I'm not saying that the two taverns per block face is necessarily the most important issue facing us in our downtown, but it is one of those obstacles."
During the day, downtown bustles with people. By 6 p.m., its wide sidewalks are often empty and many businesses are closed.
But locals say there's no shortage of nightlife. It's finding it that's the problem.
"We do have lots of bars and nightlife, but you have to look a little bit for it. It's a challenging condition," said Councilman Soren Simonson. "If we're truly going to welcome the world, we have to let people make their own choices about alcohol consumption."
The City Council is considering creating an entertainment district to liven up downtown. But most council members say they're in no rush to change ordinances to do so and worry about the potential for increased drunken driving.
The Utah Office of Tourism commissioned the image survey to understand how the state compares with others. The results weren't good.
The state was pushed into a corner as being highly marketable among Western states for family-friendly activities — the tourist segment that spends less per trip than any other.
Utah scored poorly on cultural activities and nightlife.
The more tourists associated the state with the Mormon church, the lower marks they gave the state for having a wide variety of things to do or being fun, luxurious, exciting or having nightlife.
Faithful church members don't drink, smoke, or consume coffee or tea.
A report last year by The Salt Lake Tribune showed about 62 percent of the state's population is Mormon, although the church contends the number is closer to 70 percent. Most of the state's leaders, including Gov. Jon Huntsman, are Mormon.
The state Legislature passed a law this year to ban smoking in bars beginning in 2009. There was discussion at the time of revisiting the state's liquor laws, which include a tax on full-strength beer and a requirement that bar visitors must be a member or a member's guest. Becoming a member involves a fee and a few minutes of paperwork.
"It's a slap in the face to tourists when they walk into a club and the first thing they're hit with is the question of whether they're a member and requiring they provide all this personal information and pay a fee to even get in the door," Anderson said.
The liquor law issue didn't make the cut for items legislators would study leading up to the legislative session that begins in January.
For all the debate, some, like Councilman Dave Buhler, see no problem in Salt Lake City.
"Compared to everywhere else in Utah," he said, "we certainly have a lot more going on in our downtown."