By Alan Gionet

DENVER (CBS4) –  Since January of 2020, the state has lost billions of dollars in tourism. However, Colorado tourism experts say across the country, recovery is believed to be in the near future.

The hope is greater for those in rural parts of the state.

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“I feel more confident now than I did a year ago when I try to travel. Which is not anything anybody wanted to do then,” said Chris Watson as he waited for a ride outside Union Station. He was headed to Buena Vista from New Orleans, where a friend had invited him. “Get some good mountain air.”

(credit: CBS)

Tourism is a major provider of jobs and tax revenue in Colorado and it’s still hurting overall across the state.

“Since January of 2020 our state has lost about $10 billion in traveler spending and those numbers keep mounting because we’re still not back to where we were,” said Cathy Ritter, director of the Colorado Tourism Office.

There is a feeling of recovery growing. Colorado is middle of the pack in recovery from the pandemic says Ritter, but better off than some.

“There is still a lot of interest in road trips this year, but there is still a lot of interest in air travel,” Ritter noted. “It’s really amazing to see how much influence the vaccine has had on traveler’s attitudes.”

Surveys show people are interested in protection from COVID-19. Travelers are thinking about things they never would have considered two years ago.

“Anyone who thinks things are going to snap back to the way they were in 2019 is disillusioned. There is a profound change across our psyche, across the country. In terms of what people are looking for in travel.”

Lodge operator Jessica Lovelace has been talking with staff at the Mellow Moon in Del Norte.

“Are we still going to be wearing masks? Are we still going to be cleaning rooms mid stay because right now we don’t offer mid-stay cleaning. To protect both our staff and our guests?”

At first her place was hit hard by the pandemic in March of 2020 only a year after opening.

“That first week when they closed everything we processed nearly $20,000 worth of cancellations. We couldn’t put the phone down. It was just, a cascade. It was very scary for a small business owner.” Then people looking to get away from density found them. “People were just itching to get out of the city and get some fresh air and you can go on a hike or a bike ride here and really not run into many people.”

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By May, when she tried to get away herself, it was a totally different story.

“My husband called me halfway through my stay and said you have to come back. I can’t any more. We’ve gotten too busy.”

The Lodge has been vigorous about COVID-19 issues. They have outdoor seating and guests don’t have to go to a lobby to check in. They are texted a room entry code. Del Norte became the perfect place and Lovelace’s timing turned out to be ideal.

“Tourism recovery is an extremely complex topic and a lot of pieces have to come together to allow for full recovery,” said Ritter. “Currently the projection for tourism recovery is a three to four to five year time frame depending on where you are in the country. Colorado may come back a little faster simply because of the interest in the outdoors.”

The cities on the Front Range are hurting. Denver saw a 69% reduction in visitors in the eight months after the pandemic got going, says Ritter. This year could bring people back with large events going again and baseball’s All-Star game is a sign of life. New attractions like the return of the Cog Railway on Pike’s Peak and a new summit house there will draw people.

(credit: CBS)

Palisade will get the Palisade Plunge, a mountain bike trail from the Grand Mesa down into the town. That fresh air could be a key.

Some places are having trouble hiring staff, because people left tourism for other jobs. Another problem could be getting a message out about COVID-19  safety.

“There still is fear out there and that is part of what we need to overcome as a marketing organization,” said Ritter. “We’ve never had to deal with those kinds of concerns in the past and so it’s a new kind of messaging.”

Lovelace found the right combination at the Mellow Moon and is now adding additional rooms. Last year is in the books.

“There were a lot of late nights a lot of tears shed, a lot of anxiety around bankruptcy,” she said.

Now things are looking up.

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“People are just looking to get out and to do something and vaccines and safety and just the fact that we know so much more today than we did a year ago.”

Alan Gionet