The Heat Is Online

Record Drought, Wildfires Threaten Colorado Tourism

Colorado's tourism industry gets $10m lift

The Boston Globe, Feb 3, 2003

DENVER -- The Colorado tourism industry, beset by fears of terrorism and the forest fires and drought that have plagued the state, is getting a $10 million boost from the state Legislature, despite the state's $850 million budget deficit. ''Lingering travel fears, the economy, the drought, wildfire -- one thing just cascaded onto the other last year,'' said Stephan Weiler, a director of the Center for Research on the Colorado Economy. ''That's a lot to recover from.''

Colorado's drought was the worst in its history. Denver has received only 16 inches of snow this winter and the reservoirs are only half full. To catch up, the Denver area needs to accumulate 150 percent of average snow. Colorado is reeling from the hit tourism took after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The state's businesses were down by as much as 20 percent last summer because of the fires. Some analysts say businesses may do average at best during the ski season, but not enough to bail out the tourism industry.

Footage of the wildfires led the national news night after night last summer, and Governor Bill Owens was criticized for exacerbating the problem in June when he was quoted as saying, ''All of Colorado is burning today.'' In all, 915,000 acres burned in Colorado wildfires last year.

''If you lived on the East Coast and you heard that Colorado was on fire what would you do?'' said Kathie Yost, one of the owners of Latigo Ranch in Colorado's high country. ''You can see why people wouldn't want to come out here on vacation.''

Yost said that reservations were down about a quarter at the ranch last summer.

Colorado State University professor Bob Aukerman conducted a study, which found that sales across the tourism and recreation industry were down at least 20 percent last summer. That equates to a $1.7 billion loss to the state's $8.5 billion annual tourism industry.

''People are booking later, staying fewer nights, and staying closer to home,'' said Peter Marsh, director of advertising for the town of Estes Park.

The gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, Estes depends on tourism. ''On top of that we had regional issues, such as the fires and drought, further exaggerating those trends.''

Tourism, which employs 8 percent of the work force, is the second largest industry in the state behind agriculture.

Owens proposed a $10 million tourism stimulus package in his State of the State address in January.

Despite the state's $850 million budget shortfall, the package was approved by the Legislature earlier this month. The money will help implement an advertising campaign aimed at bringing visitors to the state. Colorado's existing $5.7 million tourism budget ranks 34th in the nation.

Tourism industry officials held a rally on the steps of the state capitol Feb. 18 to thank Owens for committing money to tourism promotion.

''Sometimes it takes a crisis for people to understand the value of tourism to the state's economy,'' said Peter Meersman, chairman of the Colorado Restaurant Association. ''In the aftermath of the drought, wildfires, and the lingering economic effects of 9/11, Coloradans finally saw the importance of tourism.''

The downturn in tourism has hit small businesses hardest.

Greg Felt has been a fly-fishing and river guide on Colorado's Arkansas River for the past 19 years and has owned a whitewater rafting company, Canyon Marine Whitewater Expeditions, for the past 12.

''In terms of water flow it was the worst year on record and that had quite an impact on our business,'' Felt said. ''We were down 45 percent, back down to the numbers were we started 12 years ago.''

Statewide rafting visits were down 39 percent last year, costing the industry an estimated $50 million.

The ski industry has done better. ''I would say that skiing is faring a little better than the tourism industry as a whole,'' said Joan Christensen of Winter Park Resort. ''But to say we weren't impacted simply isn't true.''

Every inch of snowfall brings an estimated $150,800 to a resort community, according to a study by the Center for Research on the Colorado Economy.

But that rule seems to be changing. Despite 5 to 10 inches of fresh snow over Presidents' Day weekend, visits to the slopes may have been down slightly last year.

Yost and Felt are hoping that Colorado's problems will end soon. ''There's so much uncertainty in the world that you can't really predict what lies ahead,'' said Marsh. ''If we don't have wildfires, if we don't go to war with Iraq, if we get snow -- then things will be different.''

This story ran on page A10 of the Boston Globe on 3/2/2003.