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The US Olympic and Paralympic Museum in downtown Colorado Springs Friday, April 30, 2021. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The Colorado Tourism Office is distributing $1.8 million in marketing grants to help urban and Eastern Plains tourism bureaus recover from the lingering blows of the pandemic.

The federal money from the Economic Development Administration is part of a $750 million effort in the American Rescue Plan to support tourism and outdoor recreation. Tourism has bounced back in Colorado’s mountains, where outdoor recreation drew record visitation during the urban shutdowns of the pandemic. 

The Tourism Recovery Marketing Grants announced Tuesday are directed toward five Front Range communities where international traffic has collapsed and convention business is slow to return.

“We have different communities across the state recovering at different rates,” reads a statement by Colorado Tourism Office director Tim Wolfe, who hopes the record-setting grants will help the state return to pre-pandemic visitor spending of $24.2 billion. 

The tourism office reviewed 12 applications from 13 counties seeking $3.2 million as part of the grant application process. Wolfe has said for months that tourism on the Front Range has not recovered as strongly as the state’s mountain destinations and he expected federal recovery dollars would support those urban destinations. 

The tourism office has about $4.8 million in tourism grants from the Economic Development Administration, with $2.8 million of that earmarked for marketing and international visitation programs and $2 million focused on local destination management and recovery in areas that have not recovered from the pandemic. Earlier this year the office distributed about $710,000 in tourism marketing matching grants. 

The five Front Range organizations receiving the grants are:

  • The City of Loveland Economic Development Corp gets $175,000 for its “What’s Not to Love?” marketing campaign. 
  • Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau gets $400,000 for a campaign that promotes the city’s connection to Olympic athletes and governing bodies. 
  • Denver Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau gets $500,000 to reach international visitors.
  • Fort Collins Convention and Visitors Bureau gets $175,000 for a campaign luring off-season leisure travelers. 
  • Visit Aurora gets $400,000 to better reach conventions and groups. 

Two rural communities — Logan County and La Junta — are getting $75,000 each to launch new marketing campaigns. 

Colorado tourism rebounded from the collapse of 2020 with visitors spending $21.9 billion in 2021, according to the tourism office’s latest statewide surveys. Leisure travel — mostly to the Colorado high country — led the rebound while Front Range and Eastern Plains communities saw declines. (Visitor spending in Metro Denver in 2021, for example, was 19% below the pre-pandemic record set in 2019.)

One primary focus for Wolfe at the tourism office has been rebuilding international visitation to all parts of the state. Visitors from overseas spent an all-time high of $1.7 billion in Colorado in 2019, but that spending collapsed to $306 million in 2020 and $385 million in 2021. 

Richard Scharf, the head of Visits Denver, said the federal recovery dollars would help lure more international visitors to the city, which typically serves as a launching point for foreign vacationers who stay longer and spend more as they tour the state. 

The $75,000 for La Junta will not only help the community regain lost visitors but also help the community build a new marketing campaign around tarantulas. The Colorado Tourism Office earlier this spring delivered $20,000 to the city to help launch a program to host fall visitors who gather in southeastern Colorado to watch the arachnids’ annual mating season on the prairies of the Comanche National Grassland. 

Visit La Junta built a website to help tarantula tourists plan their trip. This new round of funding will help the community further grow its Tarantula Trek program — which it has been promoting since 2018 — as well as help educate visitors about how to better respect wildlife and public lands. 

That shift from pure marketing to more visitor management is a major theme playing out across all corners of Colorado’s tourism industry right now as tourism promoters work with local communities to mitigate the impacts of crowds. New tourism campaigns emphasize the value of residents as much as visitors as sustainable tourism messages replace traditional enticements urging people to come and enjoy themselves.

“We’ve been doing a diligent job of educating people,” La Junta’s tourism director Pamela Denahy said. “We want to make sure we have a diverse economy and tourism plays a part in that. Tourism is another spoke in our economic development wheel that helps us revitalize and keep La Junta a great place to live.”

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,...