Colorado Forecasting Fewer Fires, Return of Tourists

 

Despite ongoing budget concerns, Colorado legislators are breathing a little easier this summer than they were a year ago, when massive forest fires, stoked by a five-year drought, consumed hundreds of thousands of acres and turned tourism taxes to ash.

State economic forecasts are now calling for an increase in tourism a major industry for Colorado though still below normal levels. With budget cuts coming this fiscal year in higher education and government jobs, programs and services statewide, the tourism forecast is at least encouraging state officials say.

"We have certainly included, for numerous reasons, an improvement in the tourism for this year," said Mike Mowers, an economist for Colorado's Legislative Council.

"We're anticipating less fallout from 9-11, the drought seems to be in a much better situation now, so people won't be hearing about that across the country and be concerned about coming here. And we have the potential for a good ski season next year," he said. "The lack of fires certainly bode well for tourism."

There was more pessimism in late winter, as Colorado's vital snow pack in the high mountains lingered in April at below average levels.

But the forecasts changed in March when a three-day blizzard dumped more than six feet of snow on Colorado's Front Range, and left significant moisture on the Western Slope. The heavy snows paralyzed the eastern half of the state for almost a week, but brought few complaints for drought-weary residents.

One of the wettest springs in the past decade has followed, helping refill reservoirs and cattle ponds, bringing rivers and streams to near-normal levels, painting mountainsides with wildflowers and pushing fire season back to late July and August.

It has also brought optimism that summer tourists are returning, which is a welcome note in a state in which tourism vies with technology as Colorado's primary economic engine. Both have been hard-hit by the nation's economic slump.

Still, green hillsides and greenbacks that have started flowing this summer are a far different hue than the orange of roiling flames and blackened forests that dotted the state last summer.

Fire-ravaged forests, steady streams of slurry bombers, exhausted fire crews camped in mountain meadows, all played to a national audience on the nightly news last year. After each segment, hoteliers, river raft guides, fishing guides and other tourist-centric businesses reported fielding a flood of cancellations.

Gas tax revenues dropped dramatically as tourism dried to a trickle. Sales tax revenues fell as restaurants, resorts and parks felt the hit. Even stalwart Texans a strong source of tourism revenue in Colorado's mountain towns shunned the state for other vistas as haze from the summer fires hung low over the high country.

With most of the state green again a few counties in the southern Colorado are still receiving drought aid state officials are making a major investment to get tourist dollars flowing.

"Governor (Bill) Owens asked for and got from the legislature a $9 million boost in tourism spending," said Dan Hopkins, the governor's spokesman. "June is likely to be a barometer of how well those advertising dollars lift tourism this year. The heavy tourism is usually in July and August."

Mary Hart is director of the Durango Area Tourism Office, which keeps track of the estimated 1.2 million visitors to that area every year. She said that based on unique website visits and upon requests for travel information both up 115% over last year they are expecting tourism to climb this year.

"We were on our way to a record tourism season last year, before the fires hit and dried everything up," she said. "But this year we are seeing improvement. The positives are the weather. It has been beautiful here, 80-degree days, and very green."

She said her office is expecting website visits and 800-number calls to triple next month. Those normally produce reservations within three weeks.

Stefanie Dalgar, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Tourism Office, estimates that tourists bring an average of $522 million into the state annually, with some $38 million going directly into state coffers from tourism-related taxes. Increased gasoline tax revenues from tourists stopping or traveling through Colorado can raise that figure significantly especially in mountain areas where gasoline prices tend to run 20 percent higher than other areas of the state.

State Senator Dave Owen, R-Greeley, the chairman of the Colorado legislature's Joint Budget Committee, said increased tourism revenues is one of the bright spots in an otherwise strained economic situation in the state.

"The money to fight wildfires in Colorado comes out of reserve funds," Owen noted. "There were a lot of federal dollars to fight the fires last year, and we spent about $10 million ourselves, so we still have about $80 million in reserve. That isn't a concern."

But he said the cost of fighting fires was not nearly as consequential to the budget as loss of visitors to the state last season.

"That's why we decided to go ahead and put $9 million into tourism promotion," he said. "And they are putting the money to good use."

Despite improvements in tourism, Owen said he expects Colorado's overall budget concerns to persist for several years. This spring lawmakers cut 600 state jobs, and ended up with a $5.5 billion budget after a billion dollars in cuts.

"It isn't looking all that good," Owen said. "This year's budget that ends on June 30 still had a $28 million shortfall," he said. "We will take care of that with money in reserve funds, but that still has to be paid back.

"That coupled with the economic forecast leaves us looking at about $206 million short next year," he said, "which means we will have to reduce more out of 03-04. Does that mean the end of the world? Not probably."

State economists are not forecasting a significant turnaround, he said, until 2006.

 
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