|Passengers soak up the scenery
as the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge train leaves
the station on Tuesday morning./Photo by Todd Newcomer.
The students are gone, the tourists have
started arriving, and all of Durango is hoping for a gangbuster
summer after last year’s fire-stunted season. Now, with
Memorial Day weekend about to kick off, the experts are “cautiously
optimistic” about the months to come.
Mary Hart, director of the Durango Area Tourism Office, said
summer officially starts for her office this weekend. “We
are excited about it; we’re ready for it; we’re
doing everything to promote it,” Hart said. “We
believe it’s going to be a good season.”
The tourism office is implementing 18 new techniques to boost
local tourism after last year’s fires and subsequent decline
in visitors. Hart said tourism indicators show a clear need
for the measures: Mesa Verde National Park had 406,685 visitors
last year rather than its usual 600,000, and the Durango and
Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad carried 129,690, down from its
average of 200,000.
This year, Hart said there are potentially “very favorable
trends” that could benefit the Durango economy, such as
Americans increasingly opting for driving vacations because
of concerns about SARS, terrorism and war. Consequently, DATO
has pulled all international advertising and is targeting automobile-based
tourists in Colorado, Texas, Arizona and New Mexico, in that
Getting in the car
Bruce Moss, owner of Gateway Reservations, the primary booking
agency for the Durango area, said driving vacationers continue
to constitute a large portion of his callers. Moss said he is
getting 180 to 260 calls a day from people wanting to make reservations
for lodging, the train and packaged trips. He also said that
the economy is playing a big part in how people travel, and
that people are trying to shop for the best deal.
“The economy has forced people to look for deals,”
Moss said. “They’re shopping and trying to find
what’s most affordable.”
Moss’ company is trying its best to keep tourists in
town longer than the two-night average by offering extensive
package deals. DATO also is working to keep visitors in town
longer and to stay rather than just driving through. To facilitate
this, the DATO lobby has new phone desks where visitors can
make hotel bookings directly. Also, the DATO website was overhauled
in February to make it easier for people to find information
and make bookings. Another new marketing strategy is advertising
in specific publications geared toward senior citizens, whose
numbers are down because of struggling retirement plans, Hart
Ultimately, Hart believes word of mouth is the best form of
advertising and hopes that every visitor who comes here will
feel welcome. She says DATO is doing all it can to make this
“We’re trying to be proactive,” Hart said.
“All of this makes us confident that we’re on the
right path for the proper benchmark to support recovery,”
Road to recovery
Of course, recovery is on everyone’s mind, particularly
Mark Kerklo, owner of Johnny McGuire’s Deli, said last
summer’s fires and subsequent decline in visitors was
devastating not only to the environment but the community –
emotionally and financially.
“A lot of people took it really hard,” he said.
As for the financial aspect, Kerklo said, “It’s
trickle-down ramifications were pretty dynamic. The economics
(of local business ownership) revolves around being able to
nest egg your summer profits and live off them in the wintertime,
and that certainly didn’t happen.”
Still, that’s life in a tourist town, and Kerklo is hoping
for a great summer. “If you’re a business owner
in any tourist town, you’ve got to be optimistic to a
fault,” he said.
Stan Rabbe, owner of Gallery Ultima, said projections about
this summer are practically all that many local business owners
“It really is on everyone’s mind,” Rabbe
said. “For a business owner, you can’t weather two
summers in a row like this.”
But providing this summer isn’t a repeat of last year,
Rabbe said last summer’s fires may actually increase the
number of visitors to Durango this year.
“I think the fact that Durango was in the news day after
day last year ... they’re going to come,” Rabbe
said. “The impact will be positive this summer because
people will want to see what happened.”
Rabbe’s outlook is particularly optimistic considering
that he lost his house in the fires last summer.
“That’s one of the reasons why I am optimistic,”
Rabbe said. “Losing the house showed me how things change,
but it’s not the end of the world – it’s just
The power of press
Mesa Verde National Park is set to completely open for summer
during Memorial Day weekend. Tessy Shirakawa, public information
officer for the park, said with gas prices dropping, people
may be more prone to drive to summer travel destinations.
“That’s exactly what we’re hoping for,”
Shirakawa said. “The tours are booking up.”
The Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad was one business
dramatically affected by last summer’s fires since it
temporarily shut down and then reopened with limited service.
But Kristi Nelson Cohen, vice-president of sales and marketing,
is staying optimistic.
She said even though the train’s roundhouse burned in
1989, 1992 ended up being the train’s biggest tourist
year – which may have had something to do with national
press the event generated.
“It was a tragedy, but it was news nonetheless,”
Cohen said. “So I have this feeling that you get negative
press, but it’s press nonetheless. People hear about it
and remember it’s something they’ve always wanted
Cohen said the purchase of new diesel locomotives to ferry
passengers or pull the steam engine during times of high fire
risk ensures that the train will never have to stop or abbreviate
its service again. Additionally, the train is continuing its
advertising campaign aimed at the driving market and encouraging
Coloradoans to stay in state this summer.
She said Durango continues to be a great vacation destination,
with blue skies and “ribbons of green.”
So with more Americans looking to driving vacations, and Colorado
being in the heart of the country, this summer should be much
better than the last.
As Cohen concluded, “We’re not worried about SARS,
we’re not worried about terrorism, and it’s Americana.
We intend to have a great year.”