Year One: Marijuana created ‘modest boon’ to tourism
Steamboat Springs — Steamboat Springs visitors Erica Fischer and John Ihrig sat on the deck of their vacation rental condo taking turns slowly inhaling marijuana vapor from a plastic bag.
Loaded in their vaporizer is a strain of weed called StarDawg.
“You’re going to be so stoned,” Fischer said to Ihrig.
“That’s why it’s there,” he said.
As gondola cars flew by overhead headed to the top of Steamboat Ski Area, it was clear that recreational marijuana in this little ski town was quietly prospering.
“It’s an amenity, is exactly what it is,” Ihrig said. “Like when you go to a hotel and it has a hot tub, it’s an amenity.”
Drew Koehler was at the condo to show the group how to use the Volcano vaporizer, which he began renting to people in October through his company Steamboat420. He has catered mostly to customers from out of state and thinks pot tourism has emerged in Colorado.
“I think cities and towns in Colorado that offer marijuana have undoubtedly seen an increase in visitors to town,” Koehler said.
Koehler talked about one large group in particular that was trying to decide between a ski trip at Steamboat or Alta, Utah.
“The deal breaker was legal marijuana,” Koehler said.
Al White, director of the Colorado Tourism Office, said this week Colorado saw a record number of tourists in 2014, but he said it was not directly because of pot, which began being sold for recreational use on Jan. 1, 2014. White said the availability of marijuana created a “modest boon.”
“Everyone wants to know if marijuana is responsible for our records numbers, and my patent answer is ‘no, it’s not,’” White said. “They’re not coming to Colorado strictly for that purpose.”
White credited the record numbers to a good economy and his office’s $4.5 million “Come to Life” ad campaign along with an effective marketing plan. He said surveys conducted by a marketing firm showed the state’s return on their investment was $338 for every dollar spent on the campaign.
Those same surveys asked visitors a couple of questions about marijuana, and the responses did not show Colorado’s tourism numbers increased because of marijuana.
Of the people surveyed during this past summer, 62 percent said legal marijuana would not influence their decision to visit Colorado. Twenty-one percent said they would be less likely to visit. Sixteen percent said they would be more likely to visit.
“It’s kind of immaterial,” White said of legal marijuana.
With it still being illegal to consume marijuana in public, Colorado has yet to turn into North America’s Amsterdam.
When Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association CEO Jim Clark was asked if marijuana has impacted tourism, he said it has just been “more of the same.”
“I disagreed with them, but some of the industry associations were very concerned this was going to have a negative impact on tourism in Colorado,” said Clark, who was recently named the president of the Travel Industry Association of Colorado board. “I don’t think we’re seeing much impact one way or another on people’s deviation to visit or not visit.”
With marijuana still being a controversial subject in parts of the county, Clark does not foresee the state or ski towns promoting themselves as pot destinations.
“We don’t promote liquor stores either,” Clark said.
Ski and get high
At Steamboat Ski Area Wednesday, Tom and Paula O’Connor sat at a table on the Bear River Bar & Grill deck having lunch under the sun with their two young boys. The family was in town from the Chicago area for a ski vacation. They were aware of marijuana being legal in Colorado but unsure of the details.
“Like you can go into one of these little shops and buy it?” Tom O’Connor asked.
They had no plans to visit any of Steamboat’s three dispensaries on the west side of town.
“It didn’t make us come here, and it didn’t turn us away,” Tom O’Connor said. “I don’t think it would turn anyone away. It seems like it’s no big deal.”
Its not being a “big deal” is a viewpoint shared by the ski area as well as Colorado Ski Country USA, the industry group that represents 21 of the state’s ski resorts.
Jennifer Rudolph, the group’s communications director, said marijuana was the public relations event of the year, but from an operational standpoint, it was a non-event for ski resorts. She said they do not know if marijuana had any impact on skier visits, which reached a record level last season with 12.6 million visits. The group is not measuring whether marijuana has had an impact.
“We don’t know what sort of impact it has or doesn’t have on the Colorado brand,” Rudolph said.
At the Rocky Mountain Remedies marijuana dispensary in Steamboat, co-owner Kevin Fisher estimated about two-thirds of his customers are from out of state.
According to a study produced last year for the Colorado Department of Revenue, tourist demand for marijuana was strongest in the state’s mountain communities.
“Preliminary revenue and sales data from the Department of Revenue indicate that for some counties about 90 percent of all retail sales are likely to be from out-of-state visitors,” the report stated.
It is unclear how many of those visitors came to Colorado because of pot.
“While we don’t have any solid evidence marijuana is helping tourism, we are seeing record tourism, and Colorado has been getting international publicity because of legalized marijuana,” said Michael Elliott, executive director of the Marijuana Industry Group in Colorado. “Colorado has been getting a lot of free press. That’s for sure.”
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