July 10, 2013 Updated: July 10, 2013 at 3:45 pm
Just as tourism in the Pikes Peak region seemed poised to recover from the devastating blow delivered by the Waldo Canyon fire last year, hopes for a normal summer went up in smoke as dramatic scenes of the Black Forest fire played out repeatedly on the national news.
But so far, the fire has failed to dampen much of the area's tourist business, and while it's too soon to tell how the season will conclude, industry officials are optimistic. Many tourist attractions in the Pikes Peak region even had a record Fourth of July weekend, said Ryan Cole, executive director of Pikes Peak Country Attractions.
"The initial sign is that we are faring better this year from a tourism standpoint than we did immediately after the Waldo Canyon fire," said Doug Price, president and CEO of the Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau. "I would like to think it's really not doom and gloom. We still have high hopes this summer that the groups will remain strong and that vacationers will keep Colorado and Colorado Springs on their itinerary."
David Maddox, director of operations at Garden of the Gods Trading Post, said televised images of the Black Forest fire and others that have raged throughout the state this year haven't hit his business like last year's inferno.
"It wasn't a major impact like Waldo," Maddox said. "It seems like people are coming out. We are optimistic, but consciously so, and just pray we don't have any more disasters."
Price said he thinks the reason the Black Forest fire hasn't burned the tourism industry as badly is that Waldo Canyon closed U.S. 24 and hiking trails, and destroyed the Flying W Ranch. This year, the fire affected only a small portion of Interstate 25 for a short time, and didn't close highways near many tourist attractions.
"I think visitors realized that they could come and enjoy the area with the exception of the Royal Gorge bridge," Price said.
In fact, it appears most of the impact on tourism has been in the Canon City area, which was hit by the Royal Gorge fire around the same time the Black Forest fire was raging to the north.
"This year, sadly, what we lost, really from a tourism standpoint was Royal Gorge," said Price. "It is such a big tourist attraction."
The Royal Gorge Bridge and Park lost 48 of its 52 structures. The bridge remains intact, and the business is still in demolition mode, said spokeswoman Peggy Gair.
"We're hoping that we can have a bridge-only vehicular ticket by mid-August," said Gair, who sees the rebuilding process as an opportunity to modernize the park.
Rafting outfitters and other companies also have felt the impact of the Royal Gorge fire. Business is down for Royal Gorge Rafting and Zip Line Tours, said controller Heidi Anderson. Tourist companies like hers rely on business from the over 300,000 yearly visitors to the Royal Gorge bridge and park, and she said she believes that all local businesses will be hurting because of it.
"We get a lot of calls from people who are not from Colorado, tourists that are just a little bit confused," Anderson said.
The summer tourism season is a critical time for small tourist businesses, which get most of their year's earnings in the summer, Maddox said. The summer tourism season is only the 100 or so days between Memorial Day and Labor Day, so closures and slowdowns due to fires can hit hard.
Because tourism in the Colorado Springs area didn't take a huge hit this year, Price said the Convention and Visitors Bureau has no plans to relaunch its post-Waldo "Welcome Back" campaign from last summer, because Black Forest "just had a different sort of impact." But the organization is still working to boost tourism.
"We're working closely with the hotels and the attractions to make sure we're putting out a positive message that Colorado Springs is open for business and the skies are blue," said Price. Their advertising campaigns, which were shut down during the Black Forest fire, have been restored, and Price said he hopes they will continue well into the fall.