Tax revenue for hotel rooms and car rentals is up 15.6 percent; hotel occupancy rates are up 7 percent and passenger numbers at the Colorado Springs airport jumped 43 percent last year.
The statistics point to one thing: Tourism is on the rise in Colorado Springs, mirroring the rest of the state. But the increase in tourism equals more traffic, more sightseers, more hikers, cyclists and campers.
And managing the additional numbers requires tourism industry officials, open space advocates and city government to carefully balance the benefits of new visitors with maintaining the attractions that so many visitors come to see.
“We want to make sure everyone has a great experience,” said Chelsy Offutt, director of communications at the Colorado Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau. “And not just the tourists — but the residents too. It means we are involved in several conversations and discussion groups around town to make sure we have the resources we need to maintain the attractions.”
City parks strained
Even on an overcast Monday in May, Garden of the Gods Park is crowded. Parking lots are full and traffic snakes slowly through the park.
“In the past few years, all the trends are up,” said Karen Palus, director of parks for the city. “It’s at all of our sites, not just Garden of the Gods. We’re seeing it at Ute Valley Park, Palmer Park, Pikes Peak, the Manitou Incline, North Cheyenne Cañon — all the major sites. It seems to be a balance of locals and tourists, but it does mean the parks are seeing more traffic and requiring more maintenance.”
And the parks department is taking an in-depth look at the problem, studying visitor numbers and taking teps toward implementing new programs.
“We’re making a determination about how to handle the traffic in Garden of the Gods,” Palus said. “We’ve hired a consulting firm to give us some actual numbers and some options. We’re considering using the big parking lot in front of Rock Ledge Ranch for parking and then shuttle people into the Garden itself. Or provide an [Americans with Disabilities Act]-accessible path to the central gardens.”
The group is also looking at the parking lots at Garden of the Gods to see if they are in the right places, she said.
“Right now, you go any given day and the lots are full, people are driving through, traffic is backed up,” she said. “So we want to give people some options — they can shuttle in or they can drive in.”
Pikes Peak is seeing the same issue: Increased traffic to the summit creates traffic jams, she said. When construction begins on the new Summit House, those problems could get worse.
“We considered a mandatory shuttle,” Palus said. “Allowing people to drive to Devil’s Playground and then taking a bus to the summit while construction is going on. Now we’re considering adding it as an option: People can drive, take a shuttle, hike up or take the Cog Railway.”
The key, she said, is balancing the visitor levels with the maintenance needed — and that happens even at parks not frequented by tourists.
“So we’re looking at creating a partnership with Mountain Metro to do something similar to what we do in Manitou with the Incline,” she said. “People park in a free lot and take a shuttle to the trailhead. We could do something like that — where people park and the bus takes them to Ute Valley Park or Red Rock Canyon. There will be a small fee, but we’re wondering if something like that will be feasible.”
Palus points to successful transportation programs across the state, like the one at Hanging Lake that buses visitors to the trailhead. It’s also done at Maroon Bells, peaks in the Elk Mountains that are touted as the most photographed spot in Colorado.
“It’s not just our problem,” she said. “Every place in Colorado is seeing more visitors and trying to address the issue.”
Sustainability and open spaces
In Palmer Lake, the town decided to temporarily close its most popular trail, which leads to town reservoirs, because of sustainability issues.
Worries about illegal camping, dog waste, graffiti and water contamination led to the closure. The town council agreed to open the trailhead last month, but asked residents to take a role in creating sustainable practices on the trail.
It’s a workable solution, says Susan Davies, executive director of the Trails and Open Space Coalition. She says the organization relies heavily on “friends” groups to maintain trails and educate visitors about how to take care of the region’s open spaces.
“You have to do something like that,” she said. “There just aren’t enough funds. It’s a good idea, if you get people involved, then they have a stake in the outcome. And the more people you have out there, the fewer the shenanigans.”
A little bit of education goes a long way, she said.
“I find that just having polite conversations work well,” she said. “I always take an extra trash bag with me when I hike to pick up trash. It really does make a difference.”
And perhaps local tourism spots could provide educational pamphlets along with advice on where to go.
“It would just have to be four or five bullet points,” she said. “Don’t cut social trails because it creates erosion; pick up after your dog. Don’t leave trash on the trails. I think just letting people know would make a difference in how they treat the outdoors. It really is easy to be a sustainable tourist.”
The Colorado Tourism Office is also focused on sustainability as part of its roadmap for the future.
“Colorado might be a little behind in focusing on sustainability,” said Cathy Ritter, director of the state office. “But we are focusing on it now, and it’s due to feedback we got at meetings around the state.”
The objectives are to market destinations that are less known outside of local areas, the roadmap said.
“The steward pillar was inspired by heartfelt concerns regarding visitor impacts expressed in listening sessions across the state,” the report said. “Objectives aim at aligning industry partners with groups that share these same goals and together rally around strategies that lead travelers to less-visited destinations … .”
The Colorado Springs CVB is participating in state-marketed “field guides” to direct people to other destinations.
“We absolutely believe in stewardship,” said Offutt. “So we’ve put together field guides about where the locals go, places that are off the beaten path. We have seen a great deal of interest in those places.”
In El Paso County, those attractions include places like the Paint Mines Interpretive Park, a geologic site with spires created by erosion.
“We also point people to the Spencer Penrose Heritage Museum on the grounds of The Broadmoor [hotel],” she said. “A lot of people don’t know it’s there, and it’s free. … We have 55 different attractions, so it’s possible to spread the word about places many people wouldn’t know about otherwise.”
And with more visitors than ever before, Offutt says it’s important that the tourism industry works hand in hand with local officials.
“Doug [Price] is involved in conversations about widening Interstate 25 from Monument to Castle Rock, with the city about Garden of the Gods,” she said. “We definitely want to be part of continuing conversations about finding solutions.”