Record tourist season shapes up
Repeat customers, drive market make up lion's share

Passengers linger outside the Durango & Silverton train depot after arriving back into town Monday evening. According to Bobby Lieb, director of the Durango Chamber of Commerce, July sales tax receipts for the Central Business District are up nearly 10 percent over last year, on par with the record-breaking summer of 2001./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

by Missy Votel

Anyone who has recently stepped onto a crowded, downtown sidewalk can attest that summer tourism is back in full swing. According to the latest numbers, tourism in Durango this summer signals more than a return to pre-fire normalcy. It’s flirting with the record books.

“Right now, looking at numbers year to date, we are on track to beat 2001, and 2001 was a record-breaking year,” said Bobby Lieb, executive director of both the Chamber of Commerce and La Plata Economic Development Action Partnership.

Lieb is basing his statement on sales tax receipts from the Central Business District, which he says is the best gauge of tourist activity since most tourists spend at least some, if not a majority, of their time downtown.

“The Central Business District is up big time,” he said, noting that the city’s July tax report, based on June sales, was 9.67 percent higher than June 2004. Similarly, June’s tax receipts on May sales also were up, to the tune of 2.2 percent.

Lieb said although his office is not privy to how these numbers break down across various business sectors, he suspects downtown restaurants are faring exceptionally well. “I feel strongly that restaurants are making up a large percentage of sales – they are the strong performers,” he said.

At the same time, lodging taxes for July, signifying June sales, are up 9.1 percent over last year, according to Kim Newcomer, director of the Durango Area Tourism Office. Furthermore, traffic at the La Plata County Airport was up 4.3 percent for the first part of 2005 versus the first half of ’04, and visitations to DATO’s official web site were up 24.7 percent over the same period last year. The only blip in the local picture was train ridership, which has posted only modest gains over last year.

According to Andrea Seid, marketing manager for the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, the train got off to a slow start earlier in the spring, with May showing around 12,000 riders compared to 13,000 in May 2004. However, ridership has since rebounded, with June and July posting slight increases over 2004 levels.

“It’s not a huge increase, but we’re on the upswing,” she said, noting that overall, train ridership this year is up 2 percent over 2004. Additionally, with increased train fares this year, the train has seen an increase in revenue, she said.

If things continue on the same track, Seid said the train is hoping to hit 175,000 riders this year. Although below the record of 206,000 riders in 2000, this year will still be a far cry from the dismal year of 2002, which saw only 129,000 riders, thanks to the Missionary Ridge and Valley fires.

“From what everyone says, it takes three years to recover from a disaster,” she said.

Newcomer said although there are no concrete answers for the discrepancy between train numbers and the rest of the 4 downtown businesses, there are a few theories.

“One theory is that we are seeing an increase in repeat business,” she said. “You can’t get it all done in one vacation, so what happens is people come back the next time after riding the train or visiting Mesa Verde and try other activities.”

She also said that an increase in sales taxes may indicate a more affluent traveler, one willing to spend more money.

“Maybe they’re willing to spend a little more money and go to dinner and spend money at the galleries rather than packing the family into the mini van with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,” she said.

A couple passes in front of the Strater Hotel on Monday evening. Lodging taxes for July are up 9.1 percent over July 2004, according to the Durango Area tourism Office./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

Lieb noted the situation is likely a result of baby boomers coming of age and having more disposable income.

“In the ’80s, baby boomers were coming here and buying T-shirts, whereas now they’re buying artwork at galleries,” he said. “They’re moving into their peak spending years.”

Lieb also said some of the increase in downtown business could be attributed to part-time residents and guests of residents.

“We’re seeing more and more people who are second homeowners or guests of full- and part-time residents making up a lot of business,” he said. “These people don’t do things like ride the train or go to Mesa Verde on a repetitive basis, but they do go out to dinner on a repetitive basis.”

Kurt Berridge, manager of the Holiday Inn and president of the Durango Hotel and Lodging Association, also has noticed an influx of repeat business.

“A lot of people I talked to have been here before,” he said.

In keeping with the latest lodgers report, he said July was the busiest month on record for the hotel, with large travel groups, often foreigners, making a strong comeback.

“Group travel is as good as it’s ever been; it picked up heavily this summer,” he said. “Foreign travelers are also way up from where they’ve been in recent years.”

Seid, with the train, also noted an increase in international travelers.

“We just had a tour group of 250 French visitors come through, and we’re starting to see more Japanese tourists,” she said.

Despite this, Seid and the others maintained that the drive market continues to be Durango’s bread and butter, despite earlier worries that high gas prices could put a damper on the season.

“We were a little worried about how gas prices would affect summer tourism, but they haven’t played too much of a role,” said Newcomer. “Seventy percent (of visitors) are still using vehicles to get here. It’s still very much a drive market.”

Being as such, Seid and Berridge said business is harder to predict, with walk-ins comprising a big part of their business.

“Being located between Denver and the West Coast, Durango’s an easy place to stop in for a visit while on the road,” Berridge said. “We’re seeing a lot of walk-ins.”

The train is seeing a similar trend, according to Seid. “We’re seeing people doing more last-minute travel,” she said.

According to Newcomer, visitors from Texas continue to be the No. 1 contributor to tourism, making up at least 20 percent of the market. Following close behind are visitors from Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona, with Oklahoma and Southern California making strong gains.

Looking ahead to 2006, she said the challenge will lie in paying attention to Durango’s primary market while also marketing to these up and comers. She said next year’s campaign will focus on what studies have shown to be Durango’s best assets: its authenticity, beauty and variety of activities.

And lest locals worry that a robust tourism season and the influx of dollars may jeopardize these qualities, resulting in the dreaded Aspenization of Durango, Lieb said they can rest assured.

“We still don’t think Durango is a destination for the rich or ultra rich, not like Aspen or Telluride” he said. “It’s a legitimate fear, but, I think, an unfounded one.”



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