The skyline of Denver as seen from South Colorado Boulevard on April 4, 2016. (Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Denver set more tourism records in 2015. Again, marijuana gets no credit for bump

Denver hosted 16.4 million overnight visitors who spent $5 billion in 2015, setting a new tourism record for the 10th year in a row. That’s 1 million more visitors than the previous year.

Since Denver voters approved a lodging tax increase in 2005 to fund increased tourism marketing, the city’s leisure visitor numbers have grown 52 percent, more than double┬áthe national average for that 10-year period.

That boost enabled Visit Denver, the city’s tourism and convention bureau, to run visitor-enticing ad campaigns in cities like Chicago, Phoenix, Houston, Albuquerque and Dallas during the economic downturn, when other cities curtailed tourism promotion.

Denver now is reaping the return on that investment, which “really put us on the map,” Visit Denver chief Richard Scharf said.

“We have moved from a gateway destination to a destination,” Scharf said. “We appreciate being the gateway to the Rockies, but the fact that people want to spend time in Denver, that’s big for us.”

Leisure travelers drove the 9 percent boost in visitor traffic in 2015, according to the city’s annual visitor survey by Longwoods International, the firm that has measured Denver’s tourism economy since 1994.

Denver hosted 13.8 million leisure travelers last year, with 7.7 million of them visiting friends and family. The other 6.1 million were “marketable” visitors who could have vacationed anywhere but chose Denver. The Longwoods report showed Denver lured more out-of-state visitors than ever before in 2015, when 82 percent of its visitor traffic came from another state, up from 74 percent in 2014. Nationally, overnight trips increased 2 percent. In Denver, overnight trips increased 6 percent in 2015.

“You guys are becoming a real national draw,” Longwoods president Amir Eylon said, citing increasing numbers of visitors drawn to Denver from cities like Los Angeles, New York and Chicago.

Scharf said increased investment, like voter-approved expansions to the Colorado Convention Center and National Western Center, will continue to grow tourism. Scharf, who lobbied against the legalization of recreational marijuana, warning it could injure the city’s image, said he has no data showing how the booming marijuana tourism economy in Colorado impacted the city’s recent growth in tourism.

The skyline of Denver as seen from South Colorado Boulevard on April 4, 2016. (Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)
The skyline of Denver as seen from South Colorado Boulevard on April 4, 2016. (Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Since Jan. 1, 2014, the recreational sale and consumption of pot has been legal in Colorado. Cannabis┬áremains illegal on the federal level and advertising marijuana beyond state borders not permitted, so Scharf isn’t touching legal weed in his promotions or in visitor surveys.

“There are people who may be coming here, but there’s just no data right now to support what that piece is in our profile,” said Scharf, noting his team could eventually begin counting marijuana tourists among Denver’s visitors as more states embrace recreational sales. “We have a lot of vertical segments we think people come to see. Art and culture, culinary, agritourism. The majority of people come to see and do a lot of things.”

Denver tourism results in 2015:

  • Total overnight visitors: 16.4 million, up 6 percent
  • Overnight leisure trips: 13.8 million, up 6 percent
  • Overnight business trips: 2.6 million, up 9 percent
  • Day trips: 12 million, up 18 percent
  • Total visitors in 2005, when Denver’s 1A lodging tax increases passes: 7.9 million
  • Total travel spending in 2015: $5 billion, up 9 percent
  • Total leisure travel spending in 2015: $3.9 billion, up 8 percent
  • Total business travel spending in 2015: $1.1 billion, up 13 percent
  • Travel spending by sector: Accommodation = $1.51 billion / Transportation = $1.46 billion / Eating and Drinking = $1 billion / Shopping = $627 million / Recreation = $437 million
  • Average daily expenditure by visitor: Business = $149 / Marketable = $136 / Visiting friends and family = $71
  • Top feeder states: California, Texas, Florida, Illinois, Arizona
  • Top feeder cities: Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Phoenix, Houston
  • Top paid attractions: Denver Zoo, Denver Art Museum, Red Rocks Park & Amphitheater, Denver Botanic Gardens, Buffalo Bill Museum & Grave

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