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When It Comes To Pot Tourism, Colorado Officials Remain Reserved

Luke Runyon
A new type of tourist is beginning to crop up in Colorado. This one is interested in legal marijuana.

Those visiting Colorado typically cite the state's natural beauty and abundant outdoor activities as their main motivators. But a new crop of tourist just might be making the trek for a completely different reason – legal marijuana.

How the state markets – or doesn't – to that particular traveler is a challenge. One that Cathy Ritter, the state's new director of tourism, says will take time. As 2016 marks the start of the third year of legal marijuana sales in Colorado, there's still a lot that isn't know about its potential impact.

"I can't say that we have a strategy around it," Ritter said. "I think it's something we need to talk about. There's a lot we don't know about the impact of that traveler."

How Much Business Does Pot Tourism Bring Into Colorado?

Tourism in general is big business for Colorado. Visitors to the state spent more than $18 billion in 2014.

"(Tourism) accounts for a huge number of jobs, it accounts for a large share of tax revenue," Ritter said. "And so there is a keen sense of ownership in tourism here and a really widespread recognition of how important it is to the state. So the stakes are high here."

When the tourism office surveyed visitors and potential visitors in 2015, only 20 percent of respondents said that legalized marijuana made them more likely to come to Colorado and of that, only 8 percent actually went to a dispensary during their stay. Fifteen percent said legal pot actually made them less likely to come to Colorado.

"The information that we do have… is that the legalization of marijuana is actually attracting only a very small segment of traveler," Ritter said. "But for the large majority of travelers, it's a ho-hum issue."

Why Doesn't Colorado Market The Fact That Pot Is Legal Here To Other States?

According to Ritter, they really can't.

"It's not legal to market, to advertise marijuana outside the boundaries of Colorado," she said. "And Colorado's tourism promotion program is essentially aimed at people outside our borders. So, by federal law, we would be prohibited from promoting marijuana as a reason to travel to Colorado."

Credit courtesy Colorado Tourism Office
Colorado's new director of tourism, Cathy Ritter.

Because the percentage of tourists focused on marijuana is so small, Ritter added that – even if they could advertise cannabis tourism - it simply wouldn't be worth it in the larger scale.

"The reasons that people travel to our state really haven't changed," she said. "The core reasons that people travel here are to enjoy the outdoors. In the winter, that's skiing... In the summer, the outdoors focus is really around enjoying the state and national parks, the scenic byways, hiking and backpacking, enjoying historic sites. That's the core of our promotional program because those are the main motivators for people to come here."

What Role Does The Colorado Tourism Office See For Itself With Regards To Cannabis Tourism?

The one thing Ritter said they can do a better job of is educating tourists about the do's and don'ts when coming here to take advantage of legal marijuana.

Some people coming here may have smoked pot, but have limited experience with things like edibles, vaping and dabbing, which involves a much more concentrated amount of the marijuana's active chemical, THC. Then there's the issue of where they can consume it.

"One of the big challenges has been making sure that travelers are educated about the proper use of marijuana when they're here," Ritter said. "People from other states might think because marijuana is legal here they can just simply use it anywhere, but there are very strict rules around the use of marijuana."

While consumption of marijuana in private is legal, public consumption is still illegal. The laws also require people be 21 or older in order to buy or use cannabis. Consumers can only purchase up to 1 ounce at a time.

There's already one resource that can help out. Ritter recommended visitors check out the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment's website on responsible marijuana use.

Can We Ever Expect To See National TV Ads Touting Colorado As A 'Cannabis Capitol'?

Not unless there are some major shifts in federal law and in pot tourism's numbers, Ritter said, although she still plans to keep a close eye on legal marijuana's impact. Particularly as more states join Colorado in legalizing it.

"It's going to be important to see how attitudes about marijuana change over time," she said. "We do have a little bit of a baseline of research to guide us, but we probably will be thinking about what other questions we need to ask. What more do we need to know about this category of traveler so that we can position the campaign appropriately and make sure we're appealing to people who are making a positive economic impact in the state and encouraging them to stay longer and experience more. That's really what it's all about."

Stacy was KUNC's arts and culture reporter from 2015 to 2021.
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