Justin Palacios, at left, poses for the photo by his backpacking partner Lee Marklund before venturing onto the Four Pass Loop in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness on Monday afternoon, August 9, 2021, near Aspen, Colorado. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

The coronavirus pandemic cost Colorado’s tourism industry nearly $9 billion in 2020. 

The latest figures from the Colorado Tourism Office show travel spending dropping to $15.4 billion in 2020, down from a record $24.2 billion in 2019. That’s the lowest tally of visitor spending since the depth of the recession in 2011. 

Things were looking good in the first months of 2020 but then ski resorts abruptly closed in mid-March, triggering an unprecedented shutdown of the state’s entire tourism industry. Here’s a quick review of the impacts of the pandemic on Colorado tourism, according to two annual state-commissioned tourism reports:

  • 31,700 jobs lost, to 149,500 traveler-dependent jobs in 2020 from 181,200 in 2019 
  • 9.7% decline in earnings by travel-industry workers, to $6.7 billion in 2020 from $7.4 billion in 2019 
  • 31.3% drop in traveler-generated tax revenue, to $1 billion in 2020 from $1.5 billion in 2019, which amounts to $439 million in state taxes and $588 million in local taxes
  • 52.3% drop in domestic flights into Colorado, to 5.5 million in 2020 from 11.5 million in 2019 
  • 73% decline in international travel, to 280,000 in 2020 from more than 1 million in 2019

According to the annual report by travel research firm Dean Runyan Associates, Denver took the hardest hit in 2020, with a 56% decline in traveler spending. The top five counties for tourism in Colorado — Denver, Summit, El Paso, Eagle and Arapahoe — saw a 43% decline in visitor spending. All the other counties in Colorado saw a 20% decline. 

The largest loss in 2020 was endured by lodging properties. Spending on hotels, motels and inns dropped 36% to $3.3 billion in 2020, from $5.2 billion in 2019. Restaurants and bars endured a 24% decline in spending, according to the Dean Runyan report. 

Business at Antlers at Vail ground to a halt when Vail Resorts closed because of the burgeoning pandemic in March 2020, general manager Magda King said. Prospective guests tried to cancel their reservations and asked for refunds totaling some $500,000 in bookings.

It was the “worst nightmare,” King said. “I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, how are we going to meet payroll? How are we going to do all the things that we have to do?’”

Employees’ salaries were reduced.

Workers’ job duties were shuffled.

The number of international guests dropped. The Eagle County resort typically saw visitors hailing from Australia, Mexico and Argentina, who often stayed for longer than domestic visitors, she said.

King said a $290,000 loan the resort received through the Paycheck Protection Program provided a crucial infusion of funds, and the hotel-condominium adapted to keep some business flowing.

Though reservations normally aren’t refunded if a stay is canceled within 45 days of its scheduled start, King gave guests the option to get half their money back or save it all for a future visit. Most guests chose the latter.

She also advertised the facility as a spot where people could ride out the pandemic — “have your own cocoon to quarantine from everybody else” — and lodged at discounted rates some local families who had to quarantine apart from an infected loved one.

The 2020 report by travel research firm Longwoods International, which has compiled annual tallies of Colorado tourism since the 1990s, showed 74.1 million overnight and day trips in 2020, a roughly 15% decline from 2019, marking one of the steepest declines ever for the state. Most of those declines came from visitors spending a night in Colorado, which fell to 30.8 million in 2020, down 21% from 2019. Day trips declined only 9.4%. 

Business trips to Colorado collapsed in 2020, falling 48% to 2 million trips, the lowest since Longwoods started tallying travel in the state in 1994. Travel for meetings and events fell 56% on the Front Range, compared to a statewide average of 36.3%. 

Overnight outdoor trips proved among the most healthy segments of Colorado’s tourism industry, with 4.4 million overnight outdoor trips to Colorado in 2020, down from 4.5 million in 2019.

Visitors explore the Maroon Bells Scenic Area on Monday afternoon, August 9, 2021, near Aspen, Colorado. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

If there’s any bright side to Colorado’s tourism performance in 2020 it’s that the rest of the country’s visitor-dependent businesses endured similar declines. So Colorado’s percentage of the country’s overnight travel market was 2.2% in 2020, down from 2.3% in 2019. 

Colorado started re-opening in June 2020 and state residents responded with a surge of travel, accounting for 24% of overnight trips in 2020. The Colorado Tourism Office said parts of southwestern Colorado actually saw increased traffic in 2020 as visitors explored “socially distanced destinations.”

“As we began to responsibly welcome travelers back to Colorado, we focused on promoting and protecting our cultural, environmental and economic assets through both our ‘Do Colorado Right’ marketing campaign and expanding the Care for Colorado principles to include not only Colorado places, but also the people who call Colorado home,” Jill Corbin, the Colorado Tourism Office’s interim director, said in a statement.  

Corbin pointed to state and federal support for buoying Colorado’s tourism industry. A $2.4 million CARES Act Recovery Assistance grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration is helping the Colorado Tourism Office launch its five-year “Roadmap to Recovery” plan for tourism-dependent businesses.

The office is helping 28 Colorado destinations rebound with its Restart Destinations Program, which offers marketing support and technical help. The Department of Local Affairs’ Colorado Resiliency Office is working with 16 regional groups representing 169 rural communities to spark a tourism recovery. State lawmakers set aside $10 million to help lure more meetings and events to Colorado.

Pat Meyers, the executive director of the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade, said employment in the state’s hospitality businesses was down 11.5% in June. 

“This is a good indicator that we are moving in the right direction and the quicker people get the COVID vaccine, the quicker our tourism economy will continue to recover,” Meyers said in a statement.

Business started to pick back up last June at Antlers at Vail, and really increased when the nearby ski slopes opened around Thanksgiving, King said. International guests have started to come back — though not those from Australia, where much of the country is under lockdown — and employees received retroactive pay this year to make up for the cuts during the earlier months of the pandemic, she said. 

“I think that we have had almost a record year after COVID,” she said, which she attributes to people’s desire to get back to normal. “We’re seeing tons of family reunions. We’ve seen quite a bit of weddings… We have multigenerational travel, where for example, grandpa and grandma are staying with us for a month, and then children are coming and going every week, which we had not seen before so much.” 

“Definitely the industry has rebound(ed),” she said. Seeing that, Antlers at Vail is offering fewer discounts on its rates, she said. 

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

Shannon Najmabadi covered rural affairs and the rural economy for The Colorado Sun from 2021-2023.

Email: shannon@coloradosun.com Twitter: @ShannonNajma