All indications point to a strong tourism season in Southwest Colorado, and the headwinds hurting the region last year – drought and fire – look to be but a memory.
In fact, last year’s summer of troubles may actually help this season by generating pent-up demand.
Lodgers tax collections through April are up only 3.5% compared with 2018. However, the biggest months for lodgers tax collection are June through October, which were weak in 2018 because of wildfires and drought.
“To be up in the first quarter is a good sign, and from what I’ve heard, I do think there is some pent-up demand, people who canceled plans last year or who didn’t consider Durango because of the fire,” said Barbara Bowman, interim executive director of the Durango Area Tourism Office.
As of mid-May, Mild to Wild Rafting and Jeep Tours was up 30% in booked rafting tours out of Durango, said Mild to Wild Manager Kolben Preble.
“The snowpack has really created a buzz in the rafting community,” Preble said.
He added that enough snowpack existed to allow for a boating season on the Dolores River, which began last week and ran through Thursday, has stoked further interest in Southwest Colorado among rafters. Another release from McPhee Reservoir to allow additional rafting of the Dolores is also anticipated in mid-June.
“Whenever there’s a rafting season on the Dolores, it brings people in. You don’t get to run the Dolores every year, and when you can, people come from all over, from New Mexico and Arizona and Texas, and that really helps everyone,” Preble said.
Christian Robbins, spokesman with the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, said bookings and data analysis for the Silverton season, which runs from May until October, projects ridership will exceed 150,000 and perhaps hit 160,000.
The railroad’s projections are based on bookings and other data analysis it does that goes back 10 years.
In addition, bookings for all D&SNG’s runs, including the Polar Express, are likely to exceed 200,000 riders for the first time since 2014, he said.
Robbins said the way people book has changed in the last 10 years, and fewer people book months in advance, a practice common a decade ago. So he cautioned that some of the D&SNG’s projections are based on expected ridership from late bookers based on patterns from the last 10 seasons.
“We can’t say it’s from pent-up demand, but some people would have come last year, but they couldn’t, so maybe they saved the trip for this year,” he said.
Currently, the train is on pace to have its best year since 2001, Robbins said. Carrie Whitley, D&SNG director of travel and trade, said already bookings from international travelers and tour groups are up 6% compared with this time in 2018, a year that had strong numbers until the outbreak of the 416 Fire.
Nigel Peck, owner of the Adventure Inn, anticipates annual room rentals for Durango will be up around 5%, but after three years of renovating and upgrading his property, which was formerly the Knight’s Inn, he anticipates his summer bookings will more than double 2018 numbers.
He projects his annual 2019 rentals at the Adventure Inn will be up more than 21%.
“I don’t know if it’s pent-up demand as much as it is growing demand,” Peck said, noting tourism is up throughout Colorado this year.
Also, last year’s fire kept Durango in the news, and although it was for the wrong reason, Peck said that publicity had some value.
“Last year, you heard about the fire in Durango as a negative, but you did hear about Durango all summer,” he said. “That’s not all bad. Somebody comes to a city because they know about the city. That’s the power of advertising.”