Cannabis tourists take Colorado

by Anya Jaremko-Greenwold

This January will mark three years since Colorado’s recreational cannabis legalization. Our town’s locals imbibe on the regular, and many out-of-towners seem enthusiastic about combining the area’s natural beauty with natural, plant-based highs. But what effect has the drug had on tourism in Durango and in Colorado at large?

Lorraine Taylor, an assistant professor at Fort Lewis College’s School of Business Administration, has conducted considerable research on Southwest Colorado’s tourism industry as influenced by the introduction of marijuana. So-called “marijuana tourists” don’t live in Colorado, but purchase marijuana while they’re visiting. The term accounts for a wide spectrum, including those whose primary motivation in coming to the state is the weed and people who didn’t plan on consuming originally or who didn’t consider the substance a factor in choosing to visit Colorado (but ended up moseying into a shop all the same). Taylor has concluded where these tourists hail from, when they come and what they buy here, helped along by insight from Southwest dispensaries and anonymous survey answers from hundreds of bud customers. She and others note an increase in Colorado tourism over the past several years, but Taylor is aware of the difficulties Coloradoans still face in adjusting to legalization, and remains curious as to how the possibly imminent legalization in other states could affect us.

Upon moving to Colorado in fall 2013, Taylor attended the Colorado Governor’s Tourism Conference and noticed the industry was in a panic. The literature was scarce on the burgeoning trade. “We didn’t have any answers, and nobody really knew how legalization would affect tourism, whether it’d be positive in terms of bringing in new visitors, or if there would be too many visitors,” Taylor said.

The Colorado Tourism Office, mothership for promotion and tourism management in Colorado, is responsible for developing marketing campaigns (like Come to Life). According to Taylor, they originally took a hands-off approach to marijuana tourism, concerned with using public dollars to be supportive of cannabis since most of their target markets are kid-friendly and family-oriented. Families who come to ski are the state’s highest spenders, “so [the Colorado Tourism Office] need to invest in their most lucrative market,” Taylor said. It’s illegal to advertise marijuana outside Colorado, and the entire “Come to Life” campaign is devoted to places like California, Texas and Chicago. “They also invested a bunch of money into marketing Colorado during this period since legalization, so it’s hard to say where the tourism increase comes from,” Taylor added.

Tim Walsworth, executive director of the Durango Business Improvement District, agrees it can be difficult to tell where the upward ticks come from. “We’ve seen a long history of increases in the tourism counts around here, probably going back to 2010 when we came out of the recession,” Walsworth said. “The first [cannabis] stores didn’t open in Durango until late 2014. So all those upward trends in tourism predate the legalization of marijuana.” Walsworth also suggests regional attractions (like the train, Mesa Verde and Purgatory) have all seen tourism increases, but he can’t necessarily correlate that to legalization.

In her research, Taylor has anonymously surveyed five Durango dispensaries (not everyone had time to participate), several other dispensaries across the Southwest and hundreds of cannabis customers, including both tourists and residents. She eventually hopes to apply her studies to Oregon and Washington (two more states in which recreational cannabis is legal) to see whether similar conclusions about tourist numbers and their cannabis usage can be reached.

The tourist numbersIn phase one of Taylor’s research back in 2014, she conducted interviews with marijuana shop owners and general managers in La Plata County. At the time, Durango had just started opening dispensaries, about one year after shops had begun sprouting up around the state. Employees said the majority of people visiting weren’t coming to Colorado specifically for marijuana, but rather for the plethora of recreational outdoors activities. Cannabis legality was simply icing on the cake. Taylor made her first public statement concerning the research in December 2015, stating that marijuana was not a major driver of tourism, but that it did give the state a slight competitive edge.

Since then, Taylor has seen “a positive and increasing trend in terms of the likelihood of people visiting Colorado because of marijuana.” In the latest wave of research (the winter 2016 survey from Strategic Marketing Research Insights, the firm hired by the Colorado Tourism Office), 7 percent of visitors said it’s a motivator to travel here, and 12 percent said they’ve actually visited a shop while in-state (even if they don’t necessarily make a purchase).

Who are the tourists and where do they come from?In spring 2016, Taylor surveyed 250 tourists in La Plata County marijuana shops, findings that 20 percent of customers were coming to town on day trips from northern New Mexico (80 percent were visiting for other reasons, from other locales). One survey question asked, ‘How long are you staying?’ and many answered “20 minutes,” Taylor recalls. “Here in Durango, we see a lot of day trips where people just cross to make a purchase, then leave.”

But what about families who holiday in Colorado to ski, hike or cavort innocently, devoid of herbal indulgences? Will some families stop coming? No, according to Taylor. This September, at the Colorado Governor’s Tourism conference, market research company SMARI revealed that most potential tourists who were surveyed said legalization didn’t affect their possible Colorado visitation, either positively or negatively. The number of those who WERE disinclined to visit has gone down over time. Taylor notes that the people surveyed back in 2013 might not have felt comfortable being truthful, as legalization was so new. Maybe they are more inclined to answer truthfully now, since cannabis has become less taboo. Walsworth agrees: “Studies seem to show it hasn’t helped or hurt tourism; it’s kind of a wash,” he said. “Some people don’t want to come to Colorado because of it, some do, and they kind of cancel each other out.”

Taylor’s data suggests the majority of marijuana tourists are in their 20s (though the full age range goes up to 70s). Maggie Gallagher, who does compliancy and training at Santé on Main Ave., has observed most of her tourist customers as above the age of 50, and Vanessa Brown, general manager at Animas Herbal, had similar but more mixed observations; “We definitely have the ‘blue hair’ season here, when a lot of retired older folks come out,” Brown said. “But we see lots of younger folks in the peak of summer.” Like Durango’s regular tourist season, Taylor agrees cannabis tourism flourishes in summer and slows down in spring and fall.

It’s not just local dispensaries that are cashing in on legalization. Durango Artisanal Tours helps eager marijuana tourists navigate dispensaries around town, learn the laws of cannabis and provides them with a lunch, a sober driver, guides and legal places to partake. This is their second season in business, but they’ve tripled what they achieved in their first season. Tour groups are usually six people or fewer. “Our guests prefer to be in smaller company and are not normally here to get high as a kite,” said owner Regina Wells.

Wells’ company tours tend to attract retired professionals who are coming off years of hard work and are ready to enjoy themselves. “The redder the state, the more they come from that state,” Wells said. “They are especially coming from the states where it looks like they will never legalize, because they want to find out if it’s worth it or not to move out of their state. This is sad, because they are established there with family, jobs and roots, but feel like the punitive laws are reason enough to look for a place that might be friendlier to their cannabis use.” A large percentage of her tourists are particularly interested in the medicinal side of things, either knowing someone with a serious medical problem or suffering from one themselves, and curious as to whether cannabis could afford relief.

What and how much do tourists buy?Taylor’s studies reveal that tourists purchased far more edibles than any other cannabis product. “Anecdotally, my feeling is it may be less intimidating, because you don’t need to purchase additional paraphernalia,” Taylor said. Additionally, if you’re feeling dangerous, you can drive edibles back across state lines without much risk; you can’t tell the difference between weed cookies and regular sweets if packaged discreetly, and there aren’t many car checks at state borders (at least not as far as Taylor has heard).

According to Gallagher, flower (marijuana in plant form) is the biggest seller for tourists at Santé, plus pre-rolls (pre-rolled joints) and edibles. She says about 60 percent of their sales go to tourists, 40 percent to locals. Brown doesn’t have exact tourist sales figures for Animas Herbal, but she has been surprised at how strong the shop’s local base remains. “I definitely expected it to be far more out-of-town traffic than we currently have,” she said. It should be noted that Animas Herbal is located across from Town Plaza and next to the Rock Lounge, not on Main Avenue like Santé or in the path of much tourist circulation. Taylor’s data indicates that the location of a dispensary matters far more to tourists than the quality of products or customer service; so if you are conveniently located downtown, congrats on the advantage.

By this logic, you might expect Durango Organics, in Bodo Park, to see practically no tourist foot traffic; but budtender Rhea Gillespi says they actually get a lot because their website is the first one that pops up on a Google search, and plenty of tourists Google where to go once in Durango. “I really like dealing with tourists!” Gillespi said. “They’re usually more excited. It’s new to them, and they tend to listen to what you say.” Anecdotally, She thinks most tourist customers at Durango Organics purchase edibles, seeing as that’s a product you can’t buy off the streets in non-legalized states. “You can’t get gummy candies back in Texas,” Gillespi pointed out.

As far as tourists behaving inappropriately or over-imbibing, Gallagher and Brown have few complaints. “When there’s other functions around town that involve alcohol, we tend to get some customers a little bit inebriated,” said Gallagher. “And a lot of customers are very unsure about the rules and regulations; but the majority are wonderful, and ask ahead of time where it’s OK to consume. Occasionally, you get a tourist who tries to light up or eat a gummy in our lobby.” At Animas Herbal, customer sailing is even smoother. “If anything, they tend to ask more questions to be sure they do it right!” said Brown.

The challenges of legalization There is a definite learning curve for everyone in a state after legalization. Many tourists don’t know what to do with their leftover products if they’ve over-purchased before heading home. “They leave them as tips for bartenders or housekeepers, or leave unwrapped edibles in a room and housekeepers don’t know what it is,” said Taylor. “Then they might bring it home to their kids.”

Durango is also severely lacking in spaces where people can consume their purchases legally. Tourists are allowed to buy products, but many hotels and lodging accommodations restrict smoking in their rooms but they’re not allowed to smoke in public, either. Tourists don’t own private property here, so what choice does that leave them? “That’s the new wave in tourism; figuring out how we can provide positive experiences without putting them in the threat of legal issues,” said Taylor.

Vaporizers are improving the issue; a company called My 420 Tours in Denver has contracts with lodging facilities, and if you book a hotel room with them, they bring a clean vaporizer to your hotel on the day of your check-in.

Durango Artisanal Tours also offers private land where tourists can legally consume. “We feel this is part of the public service we are providing for our community,” Wells said. “We have a beautiful private residence downtown, in the Animas Valley and several other areas – but not everyone can afford a tour.” Wells laments the lack of coffee shops or clubs in town (Amsterdam is full of those, but they’ve had legal bud for much longer than Colorado). Wells adds that Denver is voting on Initiative 300 this November, a four-year pilot program to allow spaces for the public to consume. If this passes, it will be a big win for Denver cannabis tourism.

The 2016 ballot and what’s at stake for ColoradoThis article was written before the 2016 election results, but ballot initiatives for full legalization in five states (Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada) are being voted on. Regardless if any of the measures pass, further legalization across the country appears imminent. But how will this affect Colorado’s marijuana tourism? Will vacationers still flock to climb mountains, bike and toke – or just stay in their own state and save their dough?

“Most of our tourists in Durango are from Texas, but for the state of Colorado, the biggest target market is California,” said Taylor. “If all the states eventually legalize it, marijuana tourism won’t be a thing anymore. Right now we have an advantage; it will take the other states a few years to get their footing.”

Wells isn’t overly concerned legalization in other states will affect Durango Artisanal Tours. “We put a focus on the region by offering tours that are unique to this area,” Wells said. “Think permaculture, farm to table, health and wellness, snowshoeing, bees, mountains or snow sports. A tour in the Rocky Mountains will feel different from a tour in Nevada. Just like a wine tour or a brewery tour, each one has their own flavor.”

“I don’t think it will make a huge difference, especially not initially,” said Brown of Animas Herbal. “Anything like this takes a lot of ‘bureaucratic time,’ as I call it. They have to go through all the formalities. I feel pretty confident Colorado is the model state for legal cannabis; we have a lot of great products. I don’t feel too threatened.”


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