Tourism offices across the nation are taking a wait-and-see approach as to whether they'll jump into the waters of promoting the legal marijuana industry. Pictured: A file photo from 2014 of cannabis-friendly shirts at a souvenir shop in resort town Steamboat Springs, Colo. (Ricardo Baca, The Cannabist)

‘We don’t exactly know what to do with it’: Marijuana tourism still confounds legalized states

The cannabis industry presents a tricky proposition for tourism officials in legal recreational marijuana states.

One one hand, the market is growing fast and it’s quite unique — not every state can lay claim to the ability for adults to walk into a store and legally buy pre-rolled joints, edibles and other cannabis products.

On the other, marketing to out-of-state visitors is untested and riddled with unknowns — because not everyone, especially the federal government, is on board with legalized pot.

So ultimately, what happens in legal cannabis states, has to stay in legal cannabis states.

But that doesn’t mean that the marketability potential of legalized cannabis markets is being ignored. Tourism officials in several marijuana-friendly states say they’re watching the industry closely while others are champing at the bit to make a move.

“As a market that may develop, we would look to absolutely be a part of that,” said David Blandford, vice president of communications at Visit Seattle.

But there are plenty of obstacles in the way, he said, notably state regulations and the federal government’s unfavorable stance on legality.

Additionally, Visit Seattle just doesn’t have a good grasp on the size and potential of the marijuana tourism market, he said. There’s a dearth of research.

“It’s just a new phenomenon,” he said. “We’re not quite there yet.”

Testing the waters

Washington’s neighbor Oregon is taking a similar stance while keeping in mind a tight tourism budget, said Linea Gagliano, director of global communications for the Oregon Tourism Commission. Gagliano’s office has been in discussions with the state’s attorney general as to what they can and cannot do in promoting the new legal marijuana industry.

“It’s a funny place to be; we don’t exactly know what to do with it,” she said. “And yet, come election season, the whole West Coast may legalize. And at that point, we’re going to need to get our heads together and think, ‘Do we own this message, or just kind of let it do its own thing?'”

Oregon hasn’t conducted research on the topic, she said. Anecdotal evidence points to legal marijuana not being the impetus for travel to the state but an incidental factor — like that of wine tasting.

“Being that it’s still federally illegal, we’re not exactly sure whether to wade into that water,” she said.

In Alaska, the state’s leading tourism trade association has monitored the process of recreational marijuana adoption in the state and will host an informational session at its upcoming convention in early October in Anchorage, said Sarah Leonard, the president and chief executive officer of the Alaska Travel Industry Association.

“We want to be able to provide our industry and member businesses the best available information related to local ordinances and regulations, so that they can inform their customers,” she said via an e-mailed statement. “As managers of Alaska’s destination marketing program, we are also focused on what can or cannot be communicated about marijuana in promotional materials or on our website. We want to make sure visitors know that while recreational marijuana has become legal in Alaska, it is still illegal to transport it across states and it is not permissible to take on cruise ships and airplanes.

“We will continue to track these processes as the state and local jurisdictions determine rules around marijuana use and sales.”

The general consensus among legalized U.S. states is that while cannabis may represent a developing industry or an important opportunity, in most markets it’s one of many attractions or potential tourist draws, said John Kagia, executive vice president of industry analytics for New Frontier Data, a Washington, D.C.-based cannabis data analysis firm.

Weed-free DIA: Denver airport bans sales of marijuana souvenirs
Marijuana souvenirs on sale in Steamboat Springs, Colo. (Ricardo Baca, Cannabist file)

“They think it is not yet appropriate to put a distinct and significant emphasis particularly on cannabis,” he said.

Aside from Colorado, the trailblazer in recreational marijuana sales, states have not put resources into studying the interplay of legalization and tourism, he said. However, New Frontier anticipates that — depending on how voting in November shakes out — three states in particular would be paying closer attention to “cannatourism”: California, Massachusetts and Nevada.

“Each of those markets are significant unique tourism destinations within their own right,” he said.

And a state like Nevada presents an interesting opportunity. There could be a natural alignment with promoting marijuana tourism for a state that already offers a “very robust portfolio of adult entertainment,” he said.

In places like California and, possibly, Denver, the idea of establishments for public use of marijuana may be greater drivers for tourism, he said.

The Nevada Division of Tourism is taking a wait-and-see approach: If the state legalizes recreational marijuana, then the office will determine whether it’ll change its marketing strategy, said Bethany Drysdale, chief communications officer for the Nevada Division of Tourism.

“We don’t know yet if recreational marijuana will become fully legal here in Nevada, and are waiting until that happens to determine if it will change our marketing strategy,” Drysdale wrote in an e-mail. “Our tourism motto here is ‘Don’t Fence Me In,’ and we pride ourselves on being a very live-and-let-live state.

“This is a place where you can be and do what you want, with few restrictions or barriers. That’s the message we weave throughout our marketing, and it works well with our current laws and potential future ones.”

Some reservations

The Boulder Convention and Visitors Bureau has taken a few calls from curious out-of-staters since Colorado’s first retail pot store opened in 2014 in the college town.

Those callers usually are directed to Google, but that hasn’t stopped the topic from being broached in industry circles, said Mary Ann Mahoney, executive director of Boulder’s tourism office.

“(They ask,) has the marketplace changed? Have we gotten more and more visitors?” she said. “To tell you the truth, it’s just kind of on the radar, but not very much.”

Mahoney said she and her colleagues consider themselves “students of Boulder” and will continue to track the cannabis industry and see how it might resonate with tourists like the booming craft beer industry has in recent years.

“If that’s what it is, then again, we have to follow (state and city regulations) and keep within what’s legal to promote,” she said. “We’re marketing to a national and international audience.”

Mahoney noted that some members of the business community have expressed concern about marketing the cannabis industry because they believe the legal marijuana industry has generated unintended consequences: a greater influx of “travelers” that have strained resources and created problems in the city and neighboring foothills.

Watching closely

On the final day of the 2016 Colorado Governor’s Tourism Conference in Breckenridge earlier this month, the state’s tourism chief did not once mention the word “marijuana” in her keynote speech.

The credit for the state’s record tourism year went to long-established drivers: the great outdoors, recreation, arts, cultural heritage, cuisine and ski resorts.

In an interview following her speech, Cathy Ritter, director of the Colorado Tourism Office, said her office continues to watch and study the Colorado marijuana industry, but hasn’t folded it into any broader marketing plan.

“I think we would have to continue to monitor it” even if it were legalized federally, she said. “If it becomes a topic that is worthwhile to promote on our website, then we would think about that when the time came. But it is so far down the list of the reasons why people come to Colorado, that it really doesn’t make sense to highlight it even today.”

Recent studies by Strategic Marketing & Research Insights show that during the winter of 2015-2016 that 4 percent of visitors surveyed said legal marijuana motivated their trip to Colorado, 7 percent said it was in their top three reasons for traveling to Colorado, and 12 percent visited a dispensary while traveling to Colorado, said Denise Miller, executive vice president of the Indianapolis-based market research firm.

Two-thirds of people surveyed were indifferent to legal marijuana and 20 percent surveyed said it was a deterring factor, she added.

When Colorado legalized recreational marijuana, it appeared to have a net negative effect on surveyed travelers, she said. During the past three seasons, that has shifted to a net positive position, she added.

Miller draws a parallel for marijuana tourism to that of the adoption of legal gambling in states outside of Nevada.

“I think it’ll probably have the same kind of arc of development,” she said. “As more states pass it and it becomes something that’s everywhere, they’ll promote it.”

Still, it might not be the easiest of industries for states to promote.

“You can benefit from it, but does it have some impact on the image of your state?” she asked. “And you have to balance that.”