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Steamboat Springs As the snow starts to fly and ski resorts open for the season, opinions vary on whether the legalization of marijuana in Colorado will impact the state’s tourism industry.
While some see opportunities, others have expressed concerns. One thing is for certain, though. The passage of Amendment 64 has put Colorado in the national spotlight, similar to what the town of Breckenridge experienced when in 2009 it became the first Colorado ski town to legalize marijuana possession.
“When you’re first to do something like that, it certainly creates a lot of stir, a lot of attention,” said Wendy Wolfe, a Breckenridge Town Council member. “I think it had both positive and negative impacts. As time went on, it became less of an issue.”
The rules unique to Breckenridge have created confusion among a number of guests in that resort town about two hours south of Steamboat, Wolfe said.
While the town considered it legal for those 21 and older to possess an ounce or less of marijuana, it is not legal to use it in public. Wolfe said the town’s police chose to educate guests about not consuming it in public.
While there were no noticeable changes after possession was legalized in Breckenridge, Wolfe thinks there were tourists who chose to come to Breckenridge because of its marijuana laws as well as those who chose to vacation elsewhere because of them.
“It’s probably a wash,” Wolfe said.
Wolfe was not a council member when the residents voted on the issue, but she was not a supporter of it.
“I would have opposed it,” she said. “I am worried about the family friendly marketing position for our ski area.”
Wolfe thinks Amendment 64 might further threaten the image that resorts in Breckenridge and Steamboat try to convey.
“I think that’s a tough sell and goes against the position of a resort that is trying to be family friendly,” she said.
Rachel Zerowin, public relations manager with the Breckenridge Resort Chamber, said her organization didn't notice impacts or see a decrease in inquiries from potential guests because of the town’s lax marijuana laws. She said property managers reported a “limited impact,” which she described as guests asking about the law.
Before Tuesday's election, state officials as well as the Visit Denver travel group came out against Amendment 64 because they feared it could hurt tourism across Colorado.
“If Colorado receives international media attention as the first state in the U.S. to legalize marijuana in their constitution, Colorado's brand will be damaged and we may attract fewer conventions and see a decline in leisure travel,” Visit Denver CEO Richard Scharf said in a statement about two weeks before Election Day.
Rob Perlman, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp., said it's too early to tell whether Amendment 64 will have an impact on the state’s ski areas — especially because the application of the law will be determined by yet-to-be-made decisions of state and federal officials. It is anticipated it will be at least a year before the state begins issuing licenses to businesses that want to sell pot to recreational users. Towns and cities also are allowed to ban pot shops under the provisions of Amendment 64. The Steamboat Springs City Council will consider an emergency moratorium on marijuana businesses next week.
Perlman, who previously was the CEO of the Colorado Ski Country USA trade group and chaired the Colorado Tourism Office board, said Colorado will remain a top destination for vacationers worldwide. As Amendment 64 is phased in, he said Steamboat Ski Area will continue to cater to families and their overall vacation experience by offering perks such as free skiing and plane tickets for children.
“We’re not going to let (Amendment 64) detract from us offering that type of experience,” Perlman said.
Al White, director of the Colorado Tourism Office and a Hayden resident, said Friday that he does not think Amendment 64 will have an impact on the state’s tourism industry.
“I don’t see people either flocking to or staying away from Colorado because of it,” White said. “We have so much more to market in Colorado than marijuana.”
Tom Kern, CEO of the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association, agreed with White that the legalization of marijuana in Colorado won't "be a part of a decision-making matrix for visitors.”
“I really don’t see it as a plus or a minus,” Kern said. “I just see it as a fact.”
State officials have said they have no intentions of marketing Colorado for its friendly stance on pot. Neither does Steamboat.
“I don’t see us utilizing the decision that was made by the voters of Colorado in the marketing or public relations of Steamboat,” Kern said.
Kern said he thinks the Chamber would treat marijuana similar to how it treats alcohol.
“We don’t market alcohol as part of our marketing message in Steamboat, so I don’t see why we would market marijuana.”
Kevin Fisher, co-owner of the Rocky Mountain Remedies medical marijuana dispensary in Steamboat, said if the federal government eases its stance on marijuana, the Colorado Tourism Board and Steamboat Springs should tap marijuana’s potential tourist market.
During the ski season, he said out-of-state visitors often call his business to ask about his products. He allows them to check out the store, but they cannot purchase any marijuana products.
“If they want to mix skiing and cannabis, that’s something we need to embrace,” Fisher said.
While Breckenridge's Wolfe said Amendment 64 might allow guests to let their hair down a little more during vacation, ski resort officials are quick to point out that the Colorado Ski Safety Act prohibits people from skiing while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
To reach Matt Stensland, call 970-871-4247 or email mstensland@SteamboatToday.com