Tourism funding lagging behind state’s neighbors | VailDaily.com

Tourism funding lagging behind state’s neighbors

VAIL — Cathy Ritter is relatively new to her job as head of the Colorado Tourism Office. But she's already aware of some of the challenges, including funding. Other states have seen Colorado's success, and they're making moves to counter it.

A Thursday session hosted by Colorado Tourism office gave area residents a chance to look at pieces of a proposed strategic plan for the state's tourism industry. There was a lot of information presented, including state funding to promote tourism.

After voters in the early 1990s rejected renewal of a small sales tax for tourism promotion, the state's share of the national tourist market took a steep drop. Throughout the past several years, the Colorado Legislature has funded tourism promotion using a combination of tax collections from the state's gambling towns, general fund money and unclaimed property tax revenue.

That funding added up to about $19.4 million in 2015. Colorado's tourism funding now ranks 13th in the nation — California's $120 million tourism fund is the nation's largest. But Colorado's ranking in tourism funding is set to drop, and quickly.

Consultant Mitch Nichols told the audience that while Colorado's tourism funding has remained flat for several years, there's been a roughly 15 percent increase in funding across the top 20 states.

There have been big increases in western states including Idaho and Montana, Nichols said. Utah's spending right now is similar to Colorado's, with that money going to promote a smaller statewide industry. Utah's funding is set to rise in coming years.

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Oregon recently boosted its state tourism spending by 80 percent. At a recent conference, Ritter's Oregon counterpart said, only half in jest, that his state hoped to knock Colorado out of fifth place nationally.

Nichols said research during the strategic planning process shows Colorado needs a tourism budget of about $29 million per year to be at rough parity with other states in tourism funding — based on population, visitors and number of attractions.

That's part of the thinking in developing the plan. Also is moving tourists from popular spots to those that don't see as many visitors. Consultant Dave Radcliffe said that's part of a strategy to make environmental sustainability issues more important in the state's tourism marketing.

Responding to a question about sustainability from Walking Mountains Science Center director Markian Feduschak, Radcliffe said state tourism officials have heard similar questions and comments at virtually every stop on a pair of listening tours.

"It's a critical element," Radcliffe said. "There are some areas that are at, near or beyond capacity."

Trying to attract people to smaller towns was good news to Amy Cassidy, the town of Eagle's soon-to-be-former marketing specialist.

Cassidy said places like Eagle are primed to take advantage of the thousands of new residents per month coming to Colorado.

"If we can win over new residents, we can encourage some longer stays," Cassidy said.

While the tourism plan is set to be adopted in early 2017, Ritter cautioned the audience not to expect too much, too soon.

"We're looking two, three, four and five years out," Ritter said.