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US Wildfires Hit Colorado Tourism - 2002-08-21

The western state of Colorado with its spectacular Rocky Mountains is a popular tourist destination in the summer as well as in the winter. Last year, a record number of visitors came to Colorado on business or vacation - more than 23 million.

But this year the region's travel industry has had major setbacks: first the economic downturn, then reaction to the September 11 terrorist attacks, and then the wildfires.

As the summer tourist season draws to a close, tourist-dependent businesses in Colorado are assessing the losses caused by the largest wildfires in the history of the western state.

Adam's Mark Hotel in downtown Denver is Colorado's largest hotel. With its 1,225 rooms, it caters mainly to convention visitors and summer is its busiest season. General Manager Andre van Hall says he has had very few cancellations this summer because the wildfires were 80 kilometers from Denver. None of the area events have been cancelled. But he says the hotel has received many telephone calls from worried clients.

"When the Hayman fire started out on the first day, we got a lot of smoke that came over Denver and I think that that smoke over the city has alarmed a lot of people and I think that there has been an over reaction in the news, in the media: the talk of nuclear winter and stuff like that," he said. "In effect, these fires were very literally very far away - over 50 miles from Denver and there are so many barriers that it was inconceivable that that fire would come anywhere close."

Denver seems to be as bustling as in any other summer. Angela Baier is the spokesperson for Colorado's number one attraction - the Denver Zoo.

"About 40 percent of Denver Zoo's visitors are tourists from outside the metro area, but right now the Denver Zoo's attendance is flat," says Angela Baier, the spokesperson for Colorado's number one attraction, the Denver Zoo. "We are just exactly where we were, within eight people, of where we were year-to-date last year, which was a wonderful year. We were concerned about the wildfires impacting our attendance, but it's proven that, at least in the metro area, people are still coming."

Denver International Airport traffic may be the best indication that the wildfires had little effect on area travel. On July 7, it recorded its third busiest day in history, with more than 127,000 visitors on that one day.

But things are not so rosy elsewhere in the state. The Colorado lodging industry reports mountain resort towns such as Durango, Aspen and Vail suffered booking declines of 15 percent and more. Ilene Kamsler, executive vice president of the Colorado Hotel and Lodging Association, says many individual visitors cancelled their plans to visit Colorado because they thought the whole state was on fire.

"Year-to-date right now, we are showing that, statewide, we are down about 4 percent in occupancy, but more important: we are down $4 in average daily room rate, which is a more telling economic figure for the lodging industry," she said.

Ilene Kamsler says the lodging industry has tried to fill the vacancies with local and regional tourists.

"If you live in western Kansas, Colorado is a perfect choice to come and visit. It's a short drive," she said. "You can put the kids in the car and be here in a day or half a day and see something you can't see at home."

But as Ms. Kamsler says, visitors from surrounding areas usually come for shorter trips, which means a lot of business on weekends and little during the week.

In addition to the lodging industry, rafting and mountaineering companies, restaurants, sports outfitters and others have reported declines in business, ranging from 10 percent to 75 percent. Fewer trips on the Durango-Silverton narrow gauge railroad have resulted in about 100 lay-offs and $30,000 in lost revenue daily.

Andre van Hall, general manager of Denver's Adam's Mark hotel, says the downward trend started after last year's terrorist attacks.

"Immediately after September 11, there was a dramatic decrease in business," he said. "Of course, people couldn't travel. Planes were not flying, so the week following, two weeks following were a dramatic reduction in travel. The individual travelers had already been slowing down due to the economy. I think the economy started to slow down last summer and the effects were first being felt by the individual traveler, the corporations, the business traveler."

According to the Colorado Visitors Study, during the last year, 23 million business travelers and vacationers spent almost $7 billion in the state. Forty percent of that was due to summer tourism. Early estimates for this year predict that Colorado's summer tourism will be down by 10 percent. That could mean $700 million less in tourism spending. And state and local governments could lose $55 million in tax revenues.

Despite a 5 percent decline in hotel occupancy in the Denver area, Richard Grant of the Convention and Visitors Bureau is optimistic.

"Tourism is always in up and down and last year was the record year for Denver - the most visitors we ever had," he said. "So being down five percent from a record year is not quite as bad as being five percent down from a poor year. We will have our normal campaign next year and I am pretty sure that we will rebound."

Richard Grant hopes that many people may have just postponed their trip to Colorado and will visit the state next year.