By Caitlin Switzer
COLORADO-They come to Colorado with high hopes—and these days, thanks to the legalization of marijuana in the state, with occasional hopes of getting high. But what do we really know of these folks called tourists?
In 2014, Colorado’s tourism industry generated 33.6 million visitors, and retained its substantial lead among states as a destination for ski travel with 21 percent share of all overnight ski trips nationwide, according to a detailed state visitor report compiled by Longwoods International on behalf of Colorado’s tourism Industry. However, visitors have been packing up their gear and heading for Colorado—including the Southwest portion—from the state’s earliest days.
Author Paul M. O’Rourke, who penned the Bureau of Land Management’s excellent “Frontier in Transition: A History of Southwestern Colorado,” notes that the tourism industry “acted as a tonic in the economic revitalization of areas once solely dependent on hard rock mining.” That change came largely with the turn of the twentieth century, O’Rourke wrote, “…when people learned that it was more profitable to work tourists than ore bodies.” However, the concept was not a new one even then, the author states. “Tourism in Southwestern Colorado actually began when explorers perceived both the economic potential and the rugged beauty of the region’s natural resources. The first recreational publicity received for southwestern Colorado was made in the official report of Captain J.N. Macomb of the United States Corps of Topographical Engineers in 1859, when he predicted fame for the mineral and hot springs at Pagosa Springs. By the late 1860’s, journalists and artists were intrigued by the many rumors of potential adventure, and began to inspect the entire region’s scenery with a thought to its possible exploitation.”
The arrival of the railroads—complete with advertising budgets—made an escape to Colorado’s curative climate more accessible to visitors, and the southwestern portion of the state became a mecca for “the tubercular, the sightseer and the adventurous,” O’Rourke wrote.
However, others were inspired to visit the region by an interest in ancient civilizations. Following the passage of the Antiquities Act in 1906, which imposed criminal penalties for destroying, excavating or injuring any historic or prehistoric ruin, monument or object of antiquity situated on U.S. lands, President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Mesa Verde Park bill to protect Mesa Verde’s archeological ruins. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the National Parks Act into law, creating the National Park Service. Hovenweep National Monument in Montezuma County was designated in 1919, and Yucca House in 1923. The Black Canyon of the Gunnison was proclaimed a national monument in 1933, and designated a National Park in 1999.
Today, Colorado is home to more than 500 heritage tourism sites, according to 2014 Office of Economic Development and International Trade (OEDIT) statistics. Average annual employment in the state’s tourism-related industries tops $177.7 million, according to OEDIT, and with 25 ski and snowboard resorts, Colorado attracts more out-of-state skiers than any other state. According to the United States Forest Service, national forests occupy nearly 22 percent of Colorado’s state land area, the third-highest percentage in the nation. Colorado’s more than 55 national and state parks, substantial wilderness and recreation areas, and the greatest number of 14,000-foot mountain peaks in the nation are significant in attracting visitors as well, the Forest Service notes. Colorado also boasts 18 of the top U.S. mountain biking trails, serving an active and adventurous demographic.
Here in Colorado’s Southwestern District, which includes Montrose County, overnight travelers generated earnings of $223 million in 2014, 5.1 percent of total earnings within the district, according to information compiled by Dean Runyon for the Colorado Tourism Office. The Dean Runyon report also notes that here in Montrose County, spending by travelers jumped from $63.9 million in 2000 to 115.4 million in 2014. Travelers are increasingly planning their trips using online resources: According to Longwoods International, six in 10 Colorado visitors indicated they used the internet to help plan their 2014 trip to the state, and to actually make a booking.
Meanwhile, as Forbes contributor Julie Weed points out, there is the new element of THC tourism. “Recreational sales of Marijuana became legal in 2014 in Colorado and Washington State, and the decriminalization is attracting visitors,” Weed writes. “Hotels.com found that Denver hotel searches went up 73 percent compared to the year before, for the Marijuana festival weekend of April 2014, the first to be held following legalization of marijuana sales.” Weed also noted that two entrepreneurs have teamed up to create a web site designed specifically for the marijuana tourism market, www.travelTHC.com.