Will we see an increase of traffic at Denver International Airport because of Colorado's liberal marijuana laws? (Photo by RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post)

Marijuana tourism: Denver flight searches spiked as pot shops opened

Did marijuana tourism make for a busier-than-average January at Denver International Airport?

It’s too early to say, but some industry analysts are expecting big January numbers at DIA to coincide with the first openings of legal recreational marijuana stores.

The official word from DIA looks more like a holding pattern: “We should have the January numbers before the end of (February),” DIA director of media relations Julie Smith told The Cannabist.

But the data geeks at online travel company Hopper are pointing toward an increased interest in air travel to Colorado. The company’s chief data scientist Patrick Surry dissected flight-search information from services such as Travelocity and Expedia and noticed a spike of interest regarding Denver-bound flights.

“The trend for Denver had departed from the norm at the exact same time as (the city) got the big media coverage across the U.S.,” said Surry, who took into account extenuating circumstances such as high-profile Denver Broncos games and better-than-last-season skiing conditions.

According to Hopper’s research, search demand for flights to Denver were 10-14 percent above the national average in the first three weeks of January 2014. (The same period in 2013 had the search demand for Denver-bound flights tracking below the national average.)

Another potentially significant part of Hopper’s findings: Some of the biggest origin cities for flights to Denver that saw rising search-traffic are also home to some of the strictest marijuana laws in the U.S. Both New York City airports, Kennedy and LaGuardia, saw double-digit increases in search traffic to Denver; New York state has only recently started to talk about opening a heavily regulated medical marijuana system. And two of the largest airports in Texas — where all types of marijuana remain illegal — DFW in Dallas and George Bush Intercontinental in Houston, saw 10 and 19 percent flight-search increases to Denver, respectively.

The question remains: Did any of these flight searches turn into flight purchases?

“There’s a lot of speculation about whether this will drive marijuana tourism,” said Surry. “So people are interested in it, and we’re trying to put some quantitative numbers to it.”

The idea of pot tourism has been hotly debated as the city of Denver and the state of Colorado’s official tourism entities have refused to comment on the validity of marijuana as a draw to the area — yet individual shop owners have commented repeatedly on the overwhelming number of out-of-state licenses seen by their security staffs.

Surry’s theory: People saw the international media surrounding the first legal recreational marijuana shops throughout Colorado. They were interested in smoking marijuana legally for the first time in their lives, and they searched flights to Denver.

“We can never say with certainty why people are searching for it,” said Surry. “We don’t have that data. But what we can do is look at patterns in previous years and comparable airports to see if they’re the same.”

Worth noting is DIA’s record-breaking December 2013, which saw 4,516,315 people traveling through the airport — a 4.8 percent increase from the previous year and an all-time record for December at the airport.

Could those record-setting numbers have set a tone for January 2014? Not likely, says DIA’s Smith.

“We had a really late Thanksgiving this year,” said Smith, “so December 1 was the busiest day of the month, and we attributed that to people coming home from Thanksgiving.”