Tourism officials race against summer clock to entice more visitors

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Rhys Millen made it to the summit in record time last year before storms shortened the race.

Rhys Millen made it to the summit in record time last year before storms shortened the race.

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, New Jersey’s state tourism office set aside $25 million to advertise that the famed Jersey Shore was open for business. City groups pitched in another $20 million for the biggest tourism war chest in that state’s history.

Down South, BP has pumped more than $150 million into advertising and marketing in Florida, Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi, and will spend $30 million more by the end of 2013 to allay lingering concerns about the damaging 2010 oil spill on the Gulf Coast.

In both places, marketing dollars are seen as the way to get visitors back to areas hit by natural and manmade disasters.

“Tourism doesn’t happen on its own. It takes marketing dollars, particularly if you’re battling an image crisis like the oil spill,” New Orleans convention and visitors bureau spokeswoman Kelly Schultz said in a Reuters wire story earlier this year.

Colorado Springs and Cañon City don’t have millions to spend on renewed marketing efforts in the wake of the recent Black Forest and Royal Gorge wildfires.

But the entire region will have to combat the national perception that the state is ablaze, as media attention continues to publicize fires on the Western Slope, in Huerfano County south of Walsenburg, and in the southwest foothills outside Denver.

It couldn’t be more important to get the word out that Colorado’s famous tourist attractions like Pikes Peak and Arkansas River rafting are open and welcoming visitors.

“This is about jobs,” said Colorado Springs CVB CEO Doug Price. “It’s about people we know keeping their jobs and their businesses open.”

Ryan Cole, executive director of Pikes Peak Country Attractions, echoed Price’s concerns.

“We have businesses that cannot take another hit like last year,” he said. “We just can’t do it. We need a good season.”

Tourism industry leaders were hoping for a banner year to make up for the loss of revenue after last year’s Waldo Canyon fire, which destroyed nearly 350 homes and damaged others, taking two lives. The major tourism areas like Old Colorado City and Manitou Springs were hit hard by an evacuation that left businesses shuttered for weeks. Woodland Park businesses suffered too, since U.S. Highway 24 was closed to through traffic for days.

This week, both the Royal Gorge and Black Forest fires are 100 percent contained, and both left behind devastation. In Black Forest, more than 500 families are picking up the pieces, combing through wreckage and filling out reams of paperwork — all while looking for temporary places to live and trying to go about their lives.

Outside of Cañon City, the Royal Gorge Bridge is facing about $28 million in damage, but owners are vowing to repair and reopen the signature tourist attraction.

The bridge is intact, and the train is running far below. But the historic carousels, the tram over the gorge and other buildings at the park have been totally destroyed.

So the tourism agencies are stepping up their efforts to combat the negative image. But unlike New Jersey and the Southern states, they’ll be doing it without state money or an over-arching state campaign.

“Along with many other state agencies, the Colorado Tourism Office worked closely with the communities that were impacted by the recent wildfires,” said Al White, former state senator and director of the Colorado Tourism Office in Denver.

“At this time we have no plans to develop an overall recovery campaign, as there were many areas of the state that were not impacted.

“However, as with last year’s fires, we will continue to work closely with our industry partners in affected areas as they begin to normalize operations.”

The Colorado Springs CVB spent a total of $280,000 last year to promote a “welcome back” campaign for visitors, encouraging people to return to the area in July and August.

It worked, they say, and they’ll use some leftover money to step up efforts in the 400-mile radius where they market the Springs.

But they’re asking for additional help — things that don’t cost money, but could get locals to attractions and away from their television sets, where ongoing news about the fire’s aftermath continues.

“What we need is a focus on the positive,” said Amy Long, vice president of marketing at the CVB. “We need to rally local people to go to events, visit these attractions, keep them open. We have marketing in place for a 400-mile radius, and we’re going to step up those efforts. We need local people to come out and do things, have fun.”

Encouraging people to dine out, relax and have fun might seem insensitive to families who lost everything in the fire.

And Long acknowledges the need to be sensitive.

“We understand people lost everything, and our hearts go out to them,” she said. “But we’re hoping not to make it worse by having businesses close and people lose their jobs.”

There’s still time. Officials are pinning high hopes on this week’s Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, the oldest motorsports event west of the Mississippi, which has professional drivers careening up the Pikes Peak Highway.

“We’re going to get national attention from that,” Price said. “And that’s good news. They’ll show the mountain. They’ll show people having a good time.”

It’s a boost local hoteliers need, he says. Vacancy rates are typically low during the week of the Hill Climb, as international visitors crowd into Colorado Springs for the annual event.

“But it’s the week after that, people are worried,” he said. “The phones stopped ringing during the fire, and our job is to get them ringing again.”