Forget future, tourism needs success now

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Anyone who has spent more than a year in Colorado Springs should know what to expect starting this weekend.

It’s the arrival of our annual summer tourism season, which means traffic jams on Interstate 25 around the Cimarron/U.S. Highway 24 exit, then westward on U.S. 24 from there. It also means car travelers flocking into the region, packing local motels and many restaurants, bringing an economic impact that’s no less than vital to Colorado Springs.

That’s the case now more than ever because of what transpired last summer.

Tourism in the Pikes Peak region was off to a good start in the summer of 2012 until the Waldo Canyon fire struck in late June. The evacuations, the necessary closure of U.S. 24 between Manitou Springs and Woodland Park, the visual images of burning homes in Colorado Springs splashed across national TV network newscasts — all combined to paralyze our tourism industry.

The effects hit hard, from the tiny shops of Old Colorado City to the motels and bars of Manitou and even The Broadmoor.

There was some recovery over the rest of the summer, but 2012 still was disastrous by almost any measure. And the only way to make it up is with renewed success — and no more serious setbacks — in 2013 and beyond.

By the time you read this, the first travelers on Memorial Day weekend will have found their way to the shadow of Pikes Peak. It’s hard to know in advance exactly what to expect, because the lodging industry (motels, bed and breakfasts, hotels, etc.) doesn’t enjoy as much early booking as in the pre-Internet era.

But the national outlook is hopeful. According to the American Automobile Association, which forecasts and documents the travel season each year, a total of 34.8 million Americans planned to travel 50-plus miles on the holiday weekend. That’s down from the 35.1 million of a year ago, but still far ahead of the recession and its after-effects (30.9 million, for example, as recently as 2009).

AAA’s pre-holiday survey also indicated the typical family would spend slightly less on trips this summer, but not enough to make a big difference. In Colorado, though, the average expense is pre-calculated at $730 for a family, up 12 percent from last year, which is a good sign.

Perhaps the most positive forecast from AAA, at least for Colorado Springs and its tourism, comes in a different form. AAA says that the typical American family taking a road-trip vacation this holiday weekend will travel an average of 690 miles, a 7.5 percent increase from the average of 642 miles last year.

Colorado’s in-state travelers, many of whom might visit multiple places, are projected to go an average of 803 miles, a huge jump from the 2012 average of 677 miles.

All of that bodes well for Colorado Springs because it should translate into more visitors coming here from a wider radius, whether they live in Iowa or Kansas, Missouri or Texas, Arizona or Utah.

Fine, you say, but how many more? That’s the tough part. For a while, most reports will have to be anecdotal, not specific.

For many years, our family has had a totally unscientific method of gauging the summer tourism locally. But it has been quite accurate. As we drive around the area, and especially around Manitou Springs, we watch for the number of “no vacancy” signs at motels. Short of that, we notice how full their parking lots are, especially around the weekends.

I’ve also had good luck through the years simply talking to strangers, whether pumping gas at Loaf ‘N Jug or standing in line at the supermarket checkout. You see someone wearing an Iowa shirt or a Texas A&M cap, and that’s a quick conversation waiting to happen. People are always happy to tell you why they came here, where they’ll visit, where they’re heading next — and they often are happy to hear some tips from a local. (Try it yourself.)

Last year was looking and sounding positive — until the fire, of course. After that, it was rough. Even in the late summer, we were hearing from business and motel owners about all the misconceptions in the outside world.

Just one example: County Commissioner Sallie Clark, who owns the Holden House bed and breakfast in Old Colorado City with her husband Welling, talked about phone callers in August wondering if the fire was still burning.

That problem is gone for now, and the recent rains have lessened the fire concerns while also not producing any floods. The thousands of visitors also will encounter another treat that doesn’t happen here every year — lots of snow still on Pikes Peak for the Memorial Day weekend.

We’ve spent a lot of energy in recent months talking about long-range plans and dreams for Colorado Springs. For the tourism industry, though, the future doesn’t matter at this point.

It’s all about now.