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An elk walks in a meadow while people in cars watch from a nearby street.
People watch elk rutting season inside Rocky Mountain National Park, Oct. 7, 2022, near Estes Park. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Angst sufferers worried about ballooning visitation to Colorado’s mountain towns can calm down a bit, thanks to the latest in a series of “COVID aftershocks” affecting tourism in the state, said Tim Wolfe, director of the Colorado Tourism Office, following release of the 2022 annual industry research report Thursday. 

Financially speaking, the report had good news: Travel spending hit a high of $27.7 billion and 90 million people visited in 2022. That’s an increase of $5.6 billion in spending over 2021, and a 6.5% increase in visitation. 

Conducted by research groups Longwoods International and Dean Runyan Associates, the report shows 70% of 2022’s tourism growth was linked to the Denver Metro area and that visitation slowed slightly in mountain towns, contrasting 2021, when Western Slope mountain communities were setting all-time records. Wolfe attributes this to the tourism industry entering its fourth of five “phases of recovery” after COVID-19 hit in 2020. 

Rural areas were the first to recover from pandemic impacts, because that’s where people could go, Wolfe said. Urban areas were next, as cities opened up and travelers began trickling back. The third phase is marked by domestic travel within the U.S., which increased last year and continues this year. And both international travel and group travel are slowly rebounding, with the first set of visitors spending $300 million in 2020, down from $1.7 billion in 2019, then climbing to $1.1 billion in 2022 from $385 million in 2021, Wolfe said. 

Visitors enjoy soaking in the waters at Pagosa Hot Springs at The Springs Resort in October 2021. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

But he was quick to point out a couple of caveats to the numbers. 

“I can tell you overnight travelers are still not to 2019 levels, but we had way more spending compared to 2019 because of inflation,” he said. 

According to the report, Colorado travel spending grew to $27.7 billion in 2022 from $22.1 billion in 2021, an increase of 25%. Take into account the purchasing power of the dollar associated with recent inflation, however, and the true quantity of goods and services purchased by travelers increased only 11.8%.  

That’s still been good for state and local tax revenue, which grew by $300 million from 2021 to a combined $1.7 billion last year, and should have helped tourist towns such as Aspen, Breckenridge, Telluride and Vail address things like housing and recreational infrastructure through the bipartisan House Bill 117. 

Mountain town visitation slowed in 2022

What hasn’t kept pace with Front Range growth is tourism in rural towns, once flocked to by tourists fleeing lockdown, Wolfe said. Destination spending in the “Mountains & Mesas Region” grew by 8% between 2021 to 2022, and Dara MacDonald, town manager for Crested Butte, said tax revenues there through June are down 2%. 

“One size doesn’t fit all,” Wolfe added, “and right now Gunnison and Crested Butte are actually down percentages in visitation.” 

Still, hiking/backpacking rank among the top three reasons people come to Colorado on overnight trips. And that has people like Aaron Kindle, the Salida-based director of sporting advocacy for the National Wildlife Federation, worried.  

Kindle is among a growing number of people who believe Colorado needs to dial back on tourism marketing because of the impact of overcrowding on wildlife. 

“Bottom line is we only have so much land and much of it is already and definitely overused,” he said. “I do not think we should market any recreation opportunities any further unless and until we put way more emphasis on recreation management and provide resources for doing so. The money that is used for marketing Colorado should first be channeled into curtailing the negative impacts of tourism and getting a handle on them, including planning for future growth and impacts.” 

A guided raft outfitter leads clients through the rapids inside Glenwood Canyon on July 3. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

In 2022, the travel website Fodors ran a story highlighting regions in the United States to think twice about visiting in 2023 in three main categories: natural attractions that could use a break in order to heal and rejuvenate; cultural hotspots that are plagued with overcrowding and resource depletion; and locations around the world immediately and dramatically impacted by water crises.  

On the list were “France’s Cliffs & Calanques,” “Lake Tahoe, California,” “Antarctica,” and the “American West.” 

Colorado wasn’t called out specifically, but to Kindle’s thinking it should have been. 

“Currently, we are killing the golden goose and allowing more impacts than we can even get close to appropriately managing,” he said. “It is simply not sustainable to keep attracting people when the management, education, facilities, etc are not currently capable of handling the numbers we are seeing and the resources are finite. Even deep in wilderness there are resource damages and overuse. That level of impact in the backcountry is a sure sign that front country, highly used, and easily accessible areas are even more overrun and the negative impacts are spreading.” 

State urges, “Do Colorado Right” 

Wolfe said Colorado Tourism is doing its part to protect the places that make the state “majestic Colorado.” 

It urges visitors to “Do Colorado Right” in messaging that accompanies its “Shine a Little Brighter” campaign. 

“’Do Colorado Right’ is what the tourism office uses on its stewardship side to tell tourists how to take care of our loved places and leave them better than when they found them,” Wolfe said. “It covers things like knowing before you go, backcountry safety and information on how to use Pegasus,” the Colorado Department of Transportation regional shuttle that services the Western Slope. Evidence shows international travelers are using Pegasus, he added, taking traffic off the roads. 

Hikers descend on Quandary Peak trail near Breckenridge on July 9. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

“We’re working to get the word out there,” Wolfe said. “To quantify it in the field, I find it interesting that a recent article showed the number of people climbing 14ers has gone down substantially and a number of communities are wondering why they’re not climbing them anymore. I mentioned there’s a really sequenced recovery in tourism. Rural was the first step but now all these other areas have opened up and I think there’s going to be more competition, amounting to decreases in places like Gunnison, Trinidad and Pagosa Springs.” 

But the on-the-ground work of protecting wild places from overcrowding falls on towns like Crested Butte and Gunnison, which MacDonald said, “as a whole have been working hard in recent years to accommodate increased visitation while protecting their natural resources.”  

“Some examples include creation of three conservation corps that are out working on trails and educating visitors each summer in various parts of the backcountry, a backcountry bathroom campaign spearheaded by the Crested Butte/Mt. Crested Butte Chamber of Commerce, shifting in messaging/education about being a better backcountry user, partnership with the USFS to eliminate dispersed camping in the drainages around Crested Butte and focus use in designated campsites,” she added. 

“Destination stewardship balances quality of life for residents and quality of experience for visitors, while enhancing our environment and communities,” Wolfe said. It educates visitors and residents on ways to travel thoughtfully and responsibly throughout the state. Core messages include topics like fire prevention, trash mitigation and sustainable travel. 

But results in this year’s report show “changes in supply of tourism around the world, which does impact Colorado, because we have international travelers,” Wolfe said. “It’s going to level out but continue to evolve. Tourism is a vital part of Colorado’s economy and we’re working through this transition.” 

Additional report findings showed direct travel-generated employment experienced a gain of approximately 15,700 jobs, for a total of 176,800, in 2022. This was a nearly 10% increase in employment compared to 2021, with accommodations and food services accounting for 57% of the gain. In 2022, every $1 million in travel-related spending resulted in six jobs for the industry. And overnight business trips saw a gain of by 58%.

Correction: This story was updated at 9:38 a.m. on Friday, July 28, 2023, to add the amount of spending by international group travelers between 2019 and 2022.

Tracy Ross is The Colorado Sun's rural economic development reporter. She also covers the outdoors, books and culture. She came to The Sun after a 20-year career covering the same beats for magazines like Outside, Backpacker, Bicycling and Skiing....