The surprise bump in tourism last year, when people searching for remote, outdoor recreation opportunities found a fit in Southwest Colorado, is expected to extend into this summer.
“I think what I've been calling La Plata County’s unique advantages will continue to work in our favor, for sure,” said Visit Durango Executive Director Rachel Brown. “We’re rural, we’re remote and outdoor rec is abundant here.”
Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is seeing solid bookings for summer, and train executives believe they have a chance to carry 200,000 riders this year.
Solid indications for a good tourism season are also coming from Steamworks Brewing Co. and the Strater Hotel.
With COVID-19 more under control, Kris Oyler, co-founder and CEO of Peak Food & Beverage, believes Durango is set up for an excellent tourism season.
Durango is principally a leisure tourism market – meaning conferences and business meetings aren’t factors here – and that too is working in the city’s favor.
Brown said tourism experts believe leisure tourism “will bounce back far more quickly” than conventions, conferences and business travel.
“Nationally, they're predicting travel will have fully rebounded by December of 2022. I would say we will be significantly ahead of that, just because we’re rural and we’re remote,” Brown said.
Last year, tourism marketing was limited to educating travelers about safe practices during the pandemic and reminding people to keep Durango in mind for future years when travel would once again be safe.
This year’s $300,000 “Always in Season” marketing campaign returns to a more normal message, but Brown said the focus this year will be getting people to visit from October to May, the nonpeak season.
Encouraging off-season travel is aimed at building a more sustainable visitation pattern – spreading visitors through the year and lightening their impact on the environment.
Still, other things from the COVID-19 pandemic linger.
Visit Durango’s homepage encourages everyone who visits this summer to be fully vaccinated before their arrival.
Visit Durango is also buying billboards in Las Vegas and Los Angeles, two new markets that will be served with flights to Durango this summer.
The radius people are willing to drive for excursions has expanded during the COVID-19 pandemic, and that’s another reason why Brown believes Durango is primed for a good summer. Some drivers are willing to travel as far as 10 hours by car.
“It’s the era of the road trip right now for obvious reasons,” she said.
Oyler said tourism season appears to have started in mid-May this year – a few weeks ahead of the traditional Memorial Day weekend and the running of the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic.
Besides Steamworks, Peak Food & Beverage operates Bird’s and El Moro Spirits and Tavern.
“We’re seeing more out-of-town visitors in our restaurants than we normally would this time of year,” Oyler said. “Typically, the season kicks off big time Memorial Day weekend. But it doesn't get super busy until mid-June. But we’re already seeing it ramp up.”
Brown said pent-up demand for travel is leading to an early start to summer travel this year.
Nationwide, research indicates 89% of people plan to travel this summer, and 43% of households have saved some of the $1,400 in stimulus money they received in March to pay for their trips.
Oyler said, “I think there's a demand to go out and do something because people were bottled up for a year and a half. I think that’s huge.”
Tori Ossola, general manager of the Strater Hotel, says a simple return to normal with the D&SNG resuming trips to Silverton and bus groups once again allowed on the roads will help.
“The train’s anticipating a good summer. And that always helps the Strater because people want that full experience – the historic hotel and the historic train ride,” she said.
Bus tours frequently pair train rides with Strater stays. The resumption of those group tour excursions means the return of a steady stream of tourists and revenue.
For the next three weeks, the Strater Hotel is booked at 90% occupancy, Ossola said.
The biggest worry emerging in Durango, she said, is the ability to hire staff members to meet demand.
Enhanced unemployment benefits, offering an extra $300 a week, remain in place through Sept. 6, and that’s shrinking the labor pool.
Currently, the Strater has 15 open positions.
Ossola said the inn is rearranging its work schedule and is offering plenty of overtime.
The Strater’s restaurants are closed Mondays and Tuesdays because of staffing difficulties. Ossola is aiming to have the Strater’s restaurants open seven days a week by next week.
“With housekeeping, we’re getting through it,” she said. “It might mean I end up cleaning a room here and there. Right now, it’s a team effort.”
Jeff Johnson, general manager of the D&SNG, said bookings for summer are running ahead of the 2019 season, when the train carried 189,500 passengers.
If bookings continue at the current pace, Johnson says it’s not out of question the train will carry 200,000 riders this year.
Johnson said the train’s peak ridership came in the early or mid-1990s, when it carried 213,000 passengers.
This year’s strong bookings come despite a federal mandate that all passengers in buses, airplanes and trains still wear masks.
With more people fully vaccinated, the federal mandate requiring masks for ridership in public transportation might be lifted, and that should spur even greater demand, Johnson said.
The mandates, required by the Federal Railroad Administration and the Transportation Security Administration, are poorly understood by the public, and that’s led D&SNG staff members to spend extra time explaining to passengers why masks are still required aboard the train.
“Mask requirements have changed over the past few weeks, and a lot of people are struggling with why we’re still requiring them,” Johnson said.
This story has been updated to note the nonpeak tourism season runs from October to May.