Holding out hope for summer recovery: The impact of COVID-19 on tourism
Concerns about COVID-19 and government restrictions have put officials in mountain communities in the odd position of encouraging outsiders to visit – just not now
Tourism in Colorado accounts for more than $1 billion in tax revenue each year, but that revenue source has ground to a halt, with tourism spending in the state down 84% year-over-year as of April 10.
Major ski areas shut down in mid-March, missing out on spring break, and Colorado Gov. Jared Polis made the shutdown of tourism official when he issued a stay-in-place order for individuals and all non-critical businesses, effective March 26.
Concerns about COVID-19 and government restrictions have put officials in mountain communities in the odd position of encouraging outsiders to visit – just not now. For example, an ad campaign by the tourism group Visit Durango in southwest Colorado features an alluring outdoor image with the message, “Don’t cancel. Postpone!”
As of April 20, La Plata County, of which Durango is the county seat, had 46 COVID-19 cases and zero deaths. Like Denver International Airport, traffic at La Plata County Airport was down 95% (as of April 20) compared with last year.
Tourism is a major industry in Durango, and summer is the biggest season of all. If there’s a silver lining – and that remains to be seen – it’s that COVID-19 struck when it did. March is when skiing at nearby Purgatory typically starts to taper off, and April, known locally as the “mud season,” is one of the slowest tourism months. Summer tourist traffic begins ramping up in May. Still, one of the area’s biggest attractions, the annual Iron Horse cycling event from Durango to Silverton, slated for May 23, has been postponed. The event typically attracts 2,000 riders along with their family and friends, amounting to an influx of up to 8,000 visitors.
As in all parts of the state, few businesses in Durango have been spared by COVID-19. “None of us have been prepared for this,” says John Wells, who co-founded Durango-based The Wells Group real estate brokerage in 1985 and attended Fort Lewis College in Durango before beginning his real estate career. “In my 41 years in real estate and a lot of different economic cycles and recessions and fires and floods, this is a first for me.”
Wells says agents at his brokerage have adapted to the ban on showing homes in-person – a one-size-fits-all measure that Wells thinks is more geared to big-city developers – but property sales still have slowed.
“We usually show about 120 homes a week this time of year,” he said in early April. “We had 24 last week. More than half of those, because of the order, were by video. The impact of fewer showings will show up in a couple months, but we’re not going to suffer as much as the retail side and the restaurant side.”
As you would expect from a prominent real estate broker who has built relationships over several decades, Wells keeps a finger on the pulse of the area’s various businesses.
“This is a resilient community,” he says. “It’s always been built on the backs of small entrepreneurs and businesspeople, and they’ve made it through a lot. The hard part is, we’re a college town also. A lot of students did stay and are now studying online, but probably 20% went home. The other ones are probably hunkered down because their part-time job is on hold for the moment.”
Wells holds out hope that stay-at-home orders will be lifted in time to save the summer tourism season, and that pent-up cabin fever will unleash a torrent of tourists.
“That’s the million-dollar question – the multi-billion dollar question for Colorado,” he says. “Will they re-book and come on back? I’ve talked to a lot of people from out of state. They’re going, ‘Man, we can’t wait until we’re able to come back; we’re tired of being locked up in our home.’”
Still, he says, not everybody is so eager for tourism to come roaring back. “There are people in this community who say, ‘We don’t want any tourists. They’re going to bring the disease,’” Wells says. “They say, ‘We don’t want tourists anyway, and now we definitely don’t want them.’ So that’s hard.”