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Myth-busting Durango’s tourism industry

In the era of fake news and conspiracy theories running amok, Durango’s tourism industry is not immune to myths, rumors and misinformation.

The dissenters of the increase to the lodgers tax and some of The Durango Herald’s most loyal trolls hope you will believe tourism does nothing for our community, but those of you who are monthly readers of “The Tourism Effect” know better. Visit Durango is committed to educating the community about the economics of tourism and how it contributes to our quality of life in La Plata County. So I’d like to break down some rumors I often hear about the travel industry in our community and give you the true story with facts to back it up:

  • “We didn’t advertise and they came anyway.”

This is something I hear said often about tourism to our area in 2020. But this statement is far from true.

While Visit Durango paused advertising for periods of time amid the height of the pandemic, plenty of marketing and advertising for our region took place in 2020. And yes, we spent less on advertising buys in 2020 than most years, but our marketing programs were far more effective and were seen by far more travelers than ever before. But even with an increase in performance, Durango’s visitation still suffered. In 2020, hotel occupancy was down 23% from 2019 and vacation rental occupancy decreased by 16%.

Truth: Yes, some people still visited in 2020, but it was not nearly at the levels of a normal year.

  • “The lodgers tax increase is intended to bring more tourists and will result in year-round crowds in Durango.”

As many of you know, with the lodgers tax increase there will be more money devoted to Visit Durango’s programs. However, almost half of the tax revenue will go toward transportation, arts, culture, events and other non-tourism-specific programs. Of the portion that will fund Visit Durango, it is true that a part of that will be for off-peak marketing, which we define as November through May. Some think our organization’s devotion to bringing more people in the shoulder season means crowds all year long. That is not the case. During certain months of the year, Durango’s hotel occupancy can drop to 20% or 30%. Durango’s goal is gradual incremental change. Expanding our marketing efforts does not mean we flip a switch and the floodgates open. We would aim for that 20% or 30% to increase to 40% or 50%. This change would be felt by our hotels that would have off-season revenue, our restaurant staff would see full tip jars more consistently, and employees at attractions and tour companies would have the stability of year-round positions. But the average resident of Durango would not notice a difference.

Truth: The aim of off-peak marketing is economic impact and gradual, sustainable, incremental increases in occupancy.

  • “Sustainable tourism isn’t real.”

This is the nice version of the most misguided rumors I have heard and hate mail I have received. These misinformed opinions imply sustainable tourism isn’t real and Visit Durango uses this phrasing just for PR purposes. Some believe Visit Durango only talks about sustainable tourism to make tourism more palatable to locals. This is not true. Sustainable tourism is a real and important field of study and philosophy of the tourism industry. Destinations all over the globe are devoted to the principles of stewardship, such as the Colorado Tourism Office and the U.S. Travel Association. By putting “sustainable tourism marketing” in the ballot language of ballot measure 1-A, Durango is distinguishing itself as a leader of this movement. Visit Durango’s board of directors, staff members and stakeholders are committed to protecting our local environment, fostering the local economy, and maintaining the unique and important culture of our piece of Southwest Colorado paradise.

Truth: Sustainability is real and is a highly regarded value of Visit Durango.

  • “Tourism marketing only attracts rich visitors.”

As I have written previously, Visit Durango targets travelers with enough disposable income to travel, which is just common sense. But we are not targeting the typical visitor to Colorado’s affluent mountain towns, such as Aspen and Vail. It is not our goal for Durango to become a pretentious resort town. In Durango, we have very few hotel properties that are classified as “luxury lodging.” We do not cater to the wealthy traveler and we plan on keeping it that way. Instead of high-income, we target potential travelers who share similar values to our residents, including the sustainably-minded, the adventurous and those who contribute to our diversity.

Truth: Durango attracts visitors from a variety of backgrounds and does not cater to the affluent and elite.

  • “Healthy tourism and a diversified economy are mutually exclusive.”

Tourism accounts for 30% of La Plata County’s economy. It is the largest sector of the economy, but by no means is it our only source of income. Seventy percent of our economy is broken into other categories, sych as manufacturing, medical and more. Just because someone is pro-tourism does not mean they are opposed to the expansion of other sectors.

Truth: We can continue to value the tourism “slice of the pie” and optimize it while also promoting and encouraging the growth of our other economic sectors.

Rachel Brown is executive director of Visit Durango. She can be reached at (970) 828-1038 or rachel@durango.org.