Did Marijuana Really Play No Role in Record-Setting Tourism Season?

A screen capture from a CBS News report about marijuana tourism in Colorado.
A screen capture from a CBS News report about marijuana tourism in Colorado.

According to the Denver Post, the summer of 2014 will set all-time tourism records -- and stats suggest the year as a whole will do so, as well. However, the Post article makes no mention of the possible part the legalization of limited marijuana sales has played when it comes to such visits.

That's no surprise, since many state and local officials have been either mum on the topic or hostile toward it for months, if not years -- a situation that's puzzling to at least one representative of the cannabis industry.

See also: Marijuana Tourism is Getting Mainstream Hype Whether State Officials Like It or Not, published February 10

Did Marijuana Really Play No Role in Record-Setting Tourism Season?

"It's hard to say how much of an effect it's had without the state or the city [of Denver] providing us with some actual numbers," concedes Taylor West, deputy director of the National Cannabis Industry Association. "But common sense tells you that absolutely it's been a factor.

"We know we saw huge amounts of travel around the beginning of the year and in April. But what we can say with absolutely certainty is that the fear-mongering about how having a legal marijuana market would destroy Colorado tourism and the state's economy has been proven 100 percent wrong."

For years, travel experts such as Arthur Frommer have talked about the benefits of marijuana tourism in Colorado. Here's an excerpt from a blog post Frommer published in December 2012:

Though local tourist officials are openly critical of the recent statewide votes in Washington and Colorado that legalized the recreational use of small amounts of marijuana, I suggest they are actually overjoyed. Already, hotels in Seattle and Denver are reporting numerous requests for reservations by pot supporters planning visits to Washington and Colorado, and numerous articles have drawn comparisons to the way in which tourism to Amsterdam in The Netherlands has been increased by the easy availability of the well-known drug. Even before the recent vote on legalization, it was known to many that "medical marijuana" was easily obtained in dozens of outlets in both cities that issued the drug in response to a doctor's prescription. For that matter, major cities in other western or near-western states have quietly tolerated the same use of the drug for many years; in San Francisco, as one example, there are numerous "medical marijuana" shops with supplies exchanged for a prescription; and the prescription is fairly easily obtained from compliant doctors issuing the drug for all sorts of mild anxiety problems, and not simply for terminal illnesses. In any event, expect a torrent of new tourism to Seattle and Denver.

Frommer's prediction has seemed especially prescient since recreational sales became legal on January 1, with most dispensaries confirming that a significant percentage of sales (and sometimes the majority) has come courtesy of folks from out of state. Moreover, there's no evidence of convention cancellations or other negative repercussions voiced by business representatives following the passage of Amendment 64 two years ago this month. But as recently as last month, Governor John Hickenlooper called A64's passage reckless and no major city or state tourism agency has embraced the marijuana tourism concept. Indeed, the subject seems largely verboten, at least in public.

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The NCIA's West says such radio silence hasn't gone unnoticed by marijuana entrepreneurs.

"I think it's disappointing for these businesses that have been working hard to contribute to the local and state economies that they're not being acknowledged for their contributions and for the fact that they have developed a market that is, by almost any measure, a great success," she says.

That Hickenlooper and so many of his peers continue to keep the marijuana industry at arm's length is unfortunate, West concedes, "but we have to balance that frustration to a certain extent with the fact that implementation of the legal market has been in large measure well done, and city and state officials deserve credit for making that happen. But it's frustrating for these businesses to feel pushed aside in public."

Not that she feels this is necessarily a permanent situation.

"I think the more the legal industry continues to show itself to be a good neighbor and a good part of the Colorado economy, the more likely it is that public acknowledgement will be forthcoming," she says. "I think it will come, and I think our businesses are doing all the right things to show that they're every bit as responsible, if not more responsible, than many other industries operating in the state."

Meanwhile, municipalities will continue to rake in all those tourism revenues -- often without mentioning that a certain product is helping to generate them.

Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.


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