Commercial rafting remained a strong economic driver in Colorado’s high country last year with the state’s outfitters logging more than a half million user days for the sixth time in a decade.
The 508,728 commercial raft trips on 29 stretches of Colorado rivers generated $162.6 million in economic impact in 2015, setting a new record just above the economic benefit estimated for the 2014 season.
Rafting outfitters are thinking the coming season will be about the same, thanks largely to the snowy April that bolstered alpine snowpacks and the recent cool weather keeping that snow from melting too early.
“We don’t want the melt to start until the crowds get here,” said David Costlow, executive director of the Colorado River Outfitters Association, which released its annual user report on Thursday.
The Arkansas River from above Buena Vista through Salida to Cañon City remains the state’s powerhouse. Traffic was up 3 percent on the most-rafted stretch of river in the country, with 197,000 user days in 2015. This created an overall economic impact of $62.5 million in Chaffee and Fremont counties.
Southwestern Colorado’s Animas River saw an 8 percent decline in both rafters and spending last year — blamed largely on the catastrophic Gold King mine blowout that fouled the river in August and abruptly deflated that river’s rafting season. Traffic on the Animas River dropped to 34,000 user days from 37,000 in 2014, triggering a nearly million-dollar decline in economic activity, which decreased to $10.8 million in 2015.
For the last decade or so, Colorado’s commercial rafting days have hovered around 500,000, with the exception of the wildfire-plagued 2012 and 2013 seasons when annual visits fell to the lowest points since 2005.
In the business world, that kind of stagnant growth translates into declining stock prices, fired CEOs and new strategies. Not in the realm of rubber riders. Flat is fine in Colorado, where river quotas and caps keep the number of users on several stretches of river at sustainable levels. It’s not likely rafting visits will ever climb much beyond 500,000, Costlow said.
“There’s not enough room on the river to have tremendous growth. It’s protecting the resource,” Costlow said. “We are fine with it. It’s the reality of the resource.”
That isn’t to say that rafting company owners aren’t expanding.
Today’s summertime visitors are looking for more than a bouncy ride through splashy waves. The outfitters menu now includes Jeep tours, ziplines and aerial course adventures designed to draw tourists back for a second, or even third, day of fun.
Rafters directly spent a record $63.5 million in 2015, or about $125 per person, up from $116 per person in 2010.
“A lot more people do multiple activities when they come to visit,” said Alex Mickel, whose Mild 2 Wild Rafting in Durango offers whitewater and Jeep adventures around southwest Colorado. “Reservations are trending strongly this season and we are hopeful. We looking at a good runoff and I think economically, people are looking to travel this summer.”