Denver tourism in 2017 set new visitor, revenue records

Denver fed, watered, housed and entertained a record 31.7 million visitors in 2017, marking the 12th consecutive year of growth for the city’s booming tourism industry, according to a survey released Wednesday by Visit Denver.

The city also enjoyed its highest-ever tourism revenue in 2017 at $6.5 billion — a 5 percent increase over 2016. And overnight visitors, who accounted for more than half of the tourists, spent 6 percent more than in 2016, according to the report by Longwoods International.

“It’s absolutely no surprise to anyone that tourism here in Denver is continuing its hot streak,” said Mayor Michael Hancock at a Wednesday morning press conference downtown. “It’s the first time since we’ve been tracking Denver tourism numbers that we have achieved this level of success in terms of both visitors and tourism revenue.”

Hancock cited the “hospitality ecosystem” and “world-class” Denver International Airport as major contributors.

Richard Scharf, who heads the city’s convention and visitors bureau, called the numbers “a milestone marking the second straight year Denver surpassed 31 million total visitors.”

“Since voter approval to increase tourism marketing dollars in 2005, Denver tourism has grown by 65 percent compared to 24 percent nationally,” Scharf said in a news release.

Last year also saw the addition of 2,065 new hotel rooms, 245 new restaurants and a record 61 million travelers through Denver International Airport, according to Visit Denver. The top five states sending vacationers to Denver last year were California, Texas, Florida, Illinois and Wyoming, which reflects a growing national reputation for the city, officials said.

In addition to supporting nearly 57,000 jobs, the sales tax collected from tourists helped reduce the burden on local residents by more than $500 per household, according to Visit Denver.

Tourists spent more than $1.7 billion at hotels and more than $1 billion on food and beverages, said Michael Erdman, senior vice president of research at Longwoods.

Shopping and entertainment also accounted for major draws, according to survey respondents, with the 16th Street Mall, Cherry Creek neighborhood, LoDo Historic District, Larimer Square, Denver Pavilions and suburban retailers as the top destinations. The Denver Zoo, Denver Botanic Gardens, Denver Museum of Nature & Science, and Denver Art Museum were the top paid-admission draws, while Red Rocks Park & Amphitheatre, the Coors Brewery in Golden, and the Colorado State Capitol were the top free-admission spots.

As in past years, Longwoods’ Erdman named Golden’s Coors Brewery Tour and Denver’s booming craft beer scene as popular offerings, but made no mention of legal, adult-use marijuana.

“Basically, the effect is neutral to positive,” said Jayne Buck, senior vice president for Visit Denver. “There are a few people in our surveys that are discouraged by it, but overall it’s not substantive enough of a (travel) reason to include. We don’t ask if they came for beer, so we certainly don’t ask if they came for one other product.”

Marijuana has generally been ignored or discounted by state and city officials as a tourism driver in previous years — in part because it remains illegal federally, making marketing agencies reluctant to get between state and federal law.

But Buck implied a softening of Visit Denver’s stance toward 21-and-up legal weed, which has been available since Jan. 1, 2014, in Colorado.

“I think it has a net positive (effect) in some ways, but now there are so many states with it, it may be even less (of a factor),” Buck said.

The main concern among tourism officials is keeping the momentum going. Reaching new travelers, whether regional or international, is pricey, Buck said, with marketing costs accounting for $13 million of Visit Denver’s $25 million budget last year.

Visit Denver’s budget is largely generated by hotel occupancy and revenue from hotel taxes, which means that in lean years — such as the early 2000s (and just after Sept. 11, 2001) — Visit Denver enjoyed far fewer resources than it has now.

The agency has also faced cultural challenges as recently as 2016, when it told the Denver City Council that negative impressions of downtown Denver, largely because of viral videos of violence on or near the tourist thoroughfare of the 16th Street Mall, was becoming a deterrent to convention business.

There’s also competition from similar-sized cities with bustling cultural, hospitality, sports and outdoor offerings. And building loyalty to Denver should be a priority, Erdman said, because out-of-state visitors account for 75 percent more spending than in-state visitors.

“It’s always a challenge for us to continue to maintain these levels of growth,” Buck said. “We have a lot of regional travelers, and discretionary travel is very much affected by economic conditions. Because we’re so isolated, we’re also dependent on air travel. And then we (need to) make sure people in the region have enough money to come and enjoy us more than once a year.”

As a result, Visit Denver will be focusing on increasing the frequency and length of visitors’ stays, as well as recruiting “the next generation of travelers” who could just as easily hop a plane to Iceland instead of spending a long weekend here, Buck said.

“The challenge is to keep being fresh,” she said. “We’re lucky that we’re the only thing within 500 miles that has a lot of great stuff. … We have plenty of hotel rooms and we’re adding more, but we still have a lot of room to grow.”

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