‘Hoping for a record year’: Colorado’s 2022 tourism season looks bright | Business

While the outlook for Colorado’s 2022 tourism season looks stronger than last year, especially for the Western Slope and resort towns, industry officials are hoping that inflation doesn’t get worse and that any new COVID outbreaks are more manageable.

“We anticipate a busy summer,” said Tim Wolfe, director of the Colorado Tourism Office.

The 2021 tourism numbers aren’t available yet, but they are sure to be better than the dismal tourism year the pandemic wrought in 2020. Colorado’s travel industry saw a 36% drop in travel spending, from a record $24.2 billion in 2019 to $15.4 billion in 2020.

The state had a record 86.9 million visitors in 2019, but that plunged by almost 13 million in 2020, according to the Colorado Tourism Office.

Other variables playing into the success of the 2022 season include the return of European travel and the increasing business travel and convention business, said Richard Scharf, president and CEO of Visit Denver.

“The Front Range is definitely slower to come back because of the business travel market and groups,” said Scharf. “But after the first couple months of the year dealing with the omicron impact, we’re seeing some tremendous demand right now.”

“That pure convention and transient business is what fills those 12,000 rooms in downtown Denver,” said Wolfe. “If you don’t have that, then you only have the leisure traveler. And they’re not coming to Denver as much as they are the mountains for leisure.”

Colorado Springs organizations are looking to boost their numbers with increased marketing.

Visit Colorado Springs, the Pikes Peak region’s primary tourism promotion agency, has doubled its marketing budget to $3.7 million, including a special campaign targeting visitors from six major cities, while the Pikes Peak Country Attractions Association, a trade group for the region’s tourism venues, is hosting a group of travel writers next month.

“We are hoping for a record year. While gas prices are certainly a wild card and will remain so, I am bullish that the pent-up demand (for travel) will be very strong,” said Visit Colorado Springs CEO Doug Price. “While both group and business travel are probably two years from a full recovery, leisure travel is filling the gaps. We are not quite back to pre-COVID levels, (though) hotel occupancy is down only a few percentage points from 2019.”

Scharf said a bright spot will be the return of European travelers.

“We could actually grow 20% there, as compared to 2019,” said Scharf. “Think about all the airlines who have resumed international flights.”

Those international travelers can spend up to five times more than local or even national tourists, Wolfe said.

“The international tourists spent $1.8 billion in 2019, and that dropped to like $360,000 in 2020,” said Wolfe. “They are the highest value spending tourists that we have. … They spend over $2,000 per person on their stay. The drive-in market spends a lot less.”

Mountain tourism experts agreed that 2021 was a robust year for tourism despite the COVID restrictions and that 2022 will likely be as well.

“We’re anticipating a strong summer in 2022,” said Blair McGary, executive director of The Summit Chamber (Summit County). “Lodging rentals in Breckenridge are up 20% and there’s about a 6% increase in available units. People have been coming for the past two years and we’re anticipating another really strong summer season.”

It might surprise some to know Glenwood Springs doesn’t even market for summer tourism.

“We really ratchet things down for the summer because we’re so busy,” said Lisa Langer, director of tourism for Visit Glenwood Springs. “Our primary media buys are for our shoulder seasons — fall, winter and spring.”

After overcoming the wildfires in 2020 and the mudslides in 2021, Langer said 2022 is poised to be a record year. 

“A real boon to us has been the Rocky Mountaineer, which started last year,” Langer said. 

The two-day train trip starts in Denver and finishes in Moab, Utah, with an overnight in Glenwood Springs. Riders can also go the reverse way. 

“That’s a world-class luxury train ride,” she said. “They weren’t supposed to start that route until 2023, so we’re happy the introductory year went off without a hitch.”

There also seems to be some common themes in how the state, cities and towns are marketing themselves for tourism travel.

“There are some areas that are getting a tremendous amount of visitation that need our stewardship support in how we can help manage the tourism,” said Wolfe.

Hence the “Do Colorado Right” marketing campaign.

“We’re talking about helping them message sustainability practices … and making sure that we don’t lose sight of the seasons that they actually still want that type of visitation,” said Wolfe.

The office grants about $2 million annually to “destination management organizations” in these towns to help them deliver that message.

The Colorado Legislature approved a $20.3 million budget for the office’s 2023 fiscal year starting July 1, restoring funding levels to pre-pandemic levels.

“We’re really trying to educate tourists on how we can avoid loving these places to death,” said McGary. “Of course we want to embrace the tourism that’s coming, but make sure these places will last for future generations, too.”

Popular Summit County destinations include Breckenridge, Lake Dillon and Arapahoe Basin ski area, which offers a ropes course in the summer and the Ferrata Climbing Adventure on the mountain’s East Wall.

Tourists will experience a lot more required reservations and pay for parking areas that used to be free.

Officials are touting a “know before you go” approach.

“We implemented the Quandary Peak shuttle system last year, where folks park and pay at Airport Road,” said McGary. “It’s a minimal fee of $6 for locals or $15 for others. The trail heads have just been inundated the last two to three years.”

She also urged visitors to try to visit during off peak hours, earlier in the morning or later in the afternoon.

“If you get there at 6 a.m., you’re probably going to find a parking spot,” she said. “We also have been warning folks of how Silverthorne backs up at I-70 exit 205 every Sunday between 1 and 5 p.m. It’s worse in the summer because of RVs and trucks pulling campers.”

Popular hot springs attraction Iron Mountain Hot Springs implemented a reservation system during the pandemic. 

“It just spreads the visitors more throughout the day and doesn’t turn into a frat party at night anymore,” Langer said. 

Both Summit and Glenwood Springs officials had another message for visitors: Be kind.

The labor shortage that grew acute earlier in the pandemic is still there, with many businesses short 25% of the staff they need.

“Just be kind and relax,” said Langer.

“Be kind to the front-line workers,” said McGary. “They’re doing the best they can, but you’re going to experience waits and delays.”

Gazette business reporter Wayne Heilman contributed to this report.

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