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Colorado Tourism Office efforts to lure visitors to off-the-beaten-path destinations like Trinidad, where artists display their work in downtown alleys, are working, with 2018 visitation numbers showing traveler spending reaching record levels. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

Travelers in Colorado set yet another record in 2018, but this time tourist spending eclipsed sheer numbers.

Colorado Tourism Office research released Thursday shows Colorado travelers spent $22.3 billion in 2018, a nearly 7% increase over the previous year while overall visitation numbers remained flat. The numbers indicate the tourism office’s two-year campaign to lure spendthrift visitors to less-trafficked corners of the state is gaining ground.

“I think this shows the plan is working,” said tourism office director Cathy Ritter, who three years ago launched a statewide listening tour to help craft a “tourism roadmap” designed to guide travelers off beaten paths while encouraging visitors to help protect Colorado’s natural resources. 

Back in 2016, on the heels of six years of record-setting numbers of visitors, Ritter was hearing from Colorado residents weary of the impacts of all those travelers. In 2017, the Colorado Tourism Roadmap pivoted the state’s clarion call for tourists into a more focused campaign promoting sustainable travel experiences.

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The tourism office last year forged a first-of-its-kind partnership with the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics to infuse tourism marketing efforts with respect for Colorado’s public lands.

(The “Are You Colo-Ready” brochure and website urged visitors to “find your way to less-visited and off-peak destinations,” avoid shortcuts that erode trails, pack out trash, be careful with fire, leave wildlife alone and “treat all living things with respect.”)

The statewide effort to educate visitors and protect landscapes included ski resorts, local marketing groups, the outdoor industry and federal land managers. And, like the push to lure the right type of visitors, it seems to be working. 

Grants from the Colorado Tourism Office support local marketing efforts in rural spots like the San Luis Valley’s Saguache. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

The office’s 2018 research — including Strategic Marketing & Research Insights’ (SMARI) survey of 2,500 U.S. travelers and annual economic impact analysis of county-by-county spending by Dean Runyan & Associates — showed more travelers picking Colorado because of the state’s focus on sustainability and protecting the environment.

Respondents to SMARI’s survey ranked Colorado as the highest in the nation for protecting and preserving natural resources. A “resident sentiment” survey of Colorado residents in April found 28% of locals were aware of the state’s Leave No Trace public education efforts.

“It’s really hitting home with Coloradans and the work we have been doing collectively in the tourism industry to improve sustainability practices is really starting to hit home with travelers as well,” Ritter said, noting that the research showed 42% of U.S. travelers saying a destination’s sustainability practices were at least somewhat important to the choice of where to vacation, up from 36% in 2017. 

Colorado is leading the charge on the sustainable tourism front, with Ritter often asked to speak at confabs across the country, outlining not just Colorado’s push to educate visitors on preserving Colorado’s landscapes, but how to enroll residents in shaping sustainable tourism campaigns. 

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“What we are doing here in Colorado is really starting to capture attention … around the country,” she said. “There are these groups that want to hear what Colorado is doing to educate travelers to reduce impacts as well as the mechanisms we put in place to listen to what residents are saying and act on what we are hearing.”

Here are some details of the 2018 visitation report released Thursday by the Colorado Tourism Office:

  • Annual spending of $22.3 billion on Colorado trips and vacations was up 6.7% compared to a national average increase of 4.1%.
  • That spending generated $1.37 billion in taxes for Colorado, with 61% of that shared among local governments. Tourism supported 174,000 jobs, a 1.9% increase over 2017.
  • Tourism business harvested $6.8 billion in 2018, up 7% from 2017.
  • Overnight leisure and business travel was flat, compared to a national increase of 2%. 
  • Colorado had the ninth-largest share of leisure travelers, up from the 18th largest share in 2009. 
  • Overall visitation climbed 1% to 85.2 million, with that increase attributed to day-trippers who are mostly Colorado residents. Day trips account for 56% of all Colorado travel.
  • International visitors, who spend an average of $2,438 per person per trip, topped more than 1 million for the first time in 2018, with about 40% of those 1,049,000 visitors coming from Mexico and Canada, and the remaining coming from the U.K., Australia, France, Germany, China and Japan.
  • The highest-spending domestic travelers are skiers, who spend $1,208 per person per trip. Golfers spend $571, touring vacationers spend $492 and city vacationers spend $412 per person, per trip. 
  • While ranking as the country’s top ski destination, Colorado ranks fourth among U.S. states for travelers seeking outdoor experiences such as hiking, rafting and camping.
The free Trinidad Trolley offers summer tours of the city’s historic downtown. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

Ritter said there are no plans to change the state’s “Come To Life” ad campaign, which debuted in 2012. The campaign ranks among the best in the country for return on investment, yielding $479 in traveler spending for every dollar spent on media promotion.

(That’s measured by CTO’s use of a new research tool called Arrivalist, which identifies travel patterns and the influence of ad campaigns by anonymously tracking traveler’s mobile phones as they connect to local networks and checking if that device ever interacted with an online travel ad for that location.) 

In May, Ritter went to Maybell in northwest Colorado for the Great American Horse Drive, which included what is probably the best-named bike ride in Colorado, the 33rd annual “Where the Hell’s Maybell?” There she spoke with two women from Paris who traveled to Colorado and paid $5,000 each to help drive a herd of horses through the Moffat County town, a 60-year-old tradition. 

“That’s $10,000 in a region that needs that. There is just such potential for taking those authentic experiences that make even us Coloradans smile and turning those into extraordinary visitor experiences that can drive spending in unique ways in areas that can really use that economic boost,” Ritter said. “We are the lucky state in this position, to be selective about who we target. So many states are ‘come one, come all’ and that’s not Colorado. We are focused on protecting the visitor experience and focused on protecting our assets.”

Jason Blevins lives in Eagle with his wife, two teenage girls and a dog named Gravy. He writes The Outsider, a weekly newsletter covering the outdoors industry from the inside out.

Topic expertise: Western Slope, public lands, outdoors, ski industry, mountain business, housing, interesting things

Location: Eagle, CO

Newsletter: The Outsider, the outdoors industry covered from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state

Education: Southwestern University


X (Formerly Twitter): @jasonblevins