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Colorado Springs tourism industry on pace with pre-fire years

July 7, 2016 Updated: July 8, 2016 at 12:36 pm
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A rainbow hangs in the evening sky above downtown Colorado Springs Saturday, July 6, 2013. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette

The Colorado Springs tourism industry has risen from the ashes of two fires and wiped off the mud from destructive floods. Now experts say it's better than ever.

Local tourism was thriving in early 2012, on track to outpace the previous year in revenue by thousands of dollars. But the 28-mile-wide Waldo Canyon fire that September seared those prospects. Just as the scene was recovering, a second fire burned through 22 square miles in Black Forest in June 2013. Not three months later, serious flooding swept tourism recovery efforts away while causing more than $1 billion in damages statewide.

This year, however, more people are visiting the Springs than ever before.

So far, 2016's lodging and automotive rental tax, or LART, revenues have soared past numbers dating back to 2011, according to documents from the Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Tourists pumped more than $5 million into the city via hotels and car rentals alone last year. That beats 2014 by almost $600,000 and casts an even longer shadow upon previous years.

The prosperity can be traced to the natural market growth that accompanies a recovering economy, said local economist Tom Binnings.

There are countless more factors guiding the wave of fortune, according to Doug Price, president of the Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"We are on a trajectory," he said. "When you get the 100th anniversary of the Pikes Peak Hill Climb, the 125th anniversary of the (Colorado Springs Cog Railway, those are all things that play well in the media and the travel news to say, 'Colorado Springs is the place to be.'"

PK Knickerbocker, director of the Pikes Peak Country Attractions Association, said the area's natural attractions are a hit with visitors. She listed the Pikes Peak highway and the Cog Railway as the most popular destinations in the area. The former has had a 20 percent rise in visitors, year-to-date, with more than 175,000 guests visiting the mountain from January 1 through July 4.

She also thanked Mother Nature for a wet, green summer.

"The snowfall contributed to an amazing runoff and my folks at Echo Canyon River Expeditions say they 'hit the whitewater lottery' this year," she said in an email to The Gazette. "It's the best rafting we've seen in 10 years."

Binnings agreed, citing the area's natural beauty as a driving force behind the city's crucial tourism. "(Tourism) gives Colorado Springs and the Pikes Peak region extensive exposure to where people come here as a tourist and they go 'Wow,'" he said. "So it's the one thing we have as a community that creates the 'wow effect.' I've never met anybody who has come as a tourist here and wasn't impressed."

Low gas prices also encourage people to drive across the country, Binnings added. Price agreed and said other forms of travel, like flights into the city, have become more accessible thus making way for more visitors. In its latest development, the Colorado Springs Airport, which flies to 10 cities in the United States, will be adding Orlando to its list of destinations come October.

These factors reflect Price's outlook. The city's LART reports show more than $400,000 was brought in by tourists via lodging and car rentals last April - nearly $5,000 more than April 2015 and almost double from every year prior.

Binnings expects the growth to continue in the foreseeable future so long as there are no other major wildfires or intense floods.

"If we assume that we don't have any bad disasters, we're anticipating relatively low gas prices," he said. "We're also seeing higher growth rates in income with the economy doing well. I think those two things argue that we will continue to see a strong tourist economy."

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Contact May Ortega: 636-0275

Twitter: @MayVOrtega

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