Brutal wildfires across the West have placed some tourist destinations from Montana to New Mexico in danger just at the height of midsummer family road-trip season, putting cherished Western landscapes at risk along with hordes of vacationers.
The Associated Press reported that in Colorado, the $5 billion tourism industry is on edge as images of smoke-choked Pikes Peak and flaming vacation cabins near Rocky Mountain National Park threaten to scare away summer tourists.
Even as some evacuated residents in Colorado were allowed to return home, tourists streamed out of some of Colorado’s most popular summer sights.
“They don’t want to come back where it is smoky and uncomfortable, so they move on,” said Chris Champlin, operator of the Pikes Peak RV Park, which is usually packed ahead of the July 4 holiday.
The fire that emptied Champlin’s RV park burned out of control at more than 5 square miles Monday, with smoke at times obscuring Pikes Peak.
In Manitou Springs, a tourist town at the base of Pikes Peak, the Blue Skies Inn was back open for business Monday, a day after guests were roused and told to evacuate. But manager Mike Dutcher worried that officials pleading for firefighting help could spook visitors.
“Tourism is a big business in Colorado, and if you hyperventilate when CNN shows up, it hurts a lot of people,” Dutcher said.
One of those people is Tresa Gray, an evacuated resident who also manages a vacation cabin. She’s waiting out the fire in an evacuation center and said she’s already lost a booking for the week of July 4, typically her easiest time renting the cabin.
“You don’t want to come up here and run in fear, especially if you don’t live here,” she said. “It’s caused us to lose some business. If we don’t get some rain, I expect to lose all of July and August.”
The head of the state’s tourism office said it’s too soon to know how the fires will affect the number of summer tourists. But Al White, director of the Colorado Tourism Office, insisted, “The active fires represent a very, very small piece of Colorado.”
Colorado is having its worst fire season since the drought-stricken year of 2002. In June of that year, wildfires charring tens of thousands of acres near the resort towns of Glenwood Springs and Durango and in Pike National Forest near Denver prompted then-Gov. Bill Owens to proclaim that it looked as if “all of Colorado is burning today.”
Tourism and hotel officials reacted furiously. Dutcher remembered the moment well.
“The phones didn’t ring for three days during the height of the season, and when they started ringing again, it was cancellations,” he said.