The city’s mascots — the dreaded Dinger with his belly still hanging out, the Big Blue Bear looking strangely small, and a few more walking fake fur balls in need of a good vacuuming — all gathered around Mayor Michael Hancock at Monday’s grand-opening festivities for the new, high-tech Tourism Information Center at 1575 California Street, just off the 16th Street Mall. “For some reason I feel very comfortable with all of them,” said the mayor, who played Huddles, a Broncos mascot, as a teen.
And the swanky space is comfortable, too, with B-cycle bikes hanging from the ceiling, a LoDo-looking brick wall, rows of old-school brochures, and a great shopping area (the only one in the city's three info centers) where tourists can buy even smaller blue bears (since the city has secured the rights to create miniatures of artist Lawrence Argent’s “I See What You Mean”) and souvenir T-shirts that are actually made in Colorado (thank you, Coloradical) rather than the made-in-Haiti numbers with the wrong date of Denver's founding that you can buy at Denver International Airport. There are also state-of-the-art touch screens so that visitors can plan their time in Denver with the tip of a finger. They’ll need to use that finger if they want to find out about recreational pot, however, even though it's the first thing people ask you about when they learn you're from Colorado. Because there are no brochures that talk about legal cannabis, no glass pipes for sale…and certainly no official visits from Little Buddy, the mythical marijuana mascot that hangs around every Colorado tourism event these days — unwanted and uninvited, but unavoidable.
The Colorado Tourism Office won a prestigious award for the state with its Come to Life campaign, which studiously avoids any mention of cannabis; plugging “marijuana” into Colorado.com’s search function used to net you exactly nothing — but in a tardy concession to reality, today it sends you to goodtoknowcolorado.com, the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment’s educational cannabis campaign. Visit Denver uses much the same strategy; rather than provide the basics themselves, denver.org and those touch screens send you to local municipalities for marijuana dos and don’ts. And as he spoke of this town’s tourism accomplishments — international travel to Denver increased 22 percent in 2014, and Denver's overall tourism has increased by 48 percent since 2005, when the national growth was just 15 percent: "Go Denver!" — Hancock didn’t refer to marijuana, either. But he doesn’t have to, because Little Buddy is always hanging in the air.
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At the same time the city was showing off its new center, a message sailed through cyberspace from cheapflights.com, noting that searches on the site for flights to Denver increased 37 percent in 2014, since people are suddenly much more interested in visiting the “now even more aptly named Mile High City of Denver.”
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Over the years, noted Richard Scharf, CEO of Visit Denver, the city’s visitor centers have gotten some unusual questions: “We’ve been asked everything from ‘What season is it right now in Denver?’ to ‘When do deer turn into elk?’ to ‘Which fourteeners can we climb from downtown Denver?’ But as funny as these questions are, they show that there is a need to educate our visitors about the city and what there is to see and do, and that’s why we operate them.”
And that’s why it’s high time to bring Little Buddy out of the shadows and offer Denver’s visitors some grown-up information about this state’s latest tourist attraction.