Colorado tourism pushing for international visitors after pandemic put the brakes on travel in 2020, new director says

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
The Mountain Village gondola with Telluride in the background on Sunday, August 29, 2021.

The Colorado Tourism Office isn’t banking on the pandemic-fueled surge in domestic travel to fill the state’s mountain towns forever — instead, it’s preparing for an influx of visitors from around the world. 

The state’s tourism office shifted gears last year and promoted local travel out of necessity, but that’s changing now, said Tim Wolfe, director of the tourism office.

“We promoted local travel and adjusted because we knew we weren’t going to have international [travel] and people wanted to get outside. But that’s not going to always be the norm,” Wolfe said. “We are marketing domestically and internationally so the whole dynamic is going to change on how that’s going to work in the mountain areas.”

After more than a year, international travelers will be able to visit the U.S. starting next month – with proof of vaccination. The loss of overseas tourism has cost the state billions in revenue. International travelers spent $1.64 billion in Colorado in 2019, compared to $306,000 in 2020, according to the state’s tourism office.

Wolfe's team is honing in on five areas for its overseas marketing campaign – Mexico, the U.K., Germany, Canada and France, he said. He’s hopeful international tourists will show up for this year’s ski season.

Wolfe, who previously ran Denver’s Brown Palace Hotel, started in his role in August. He replaced Cathy Ritter, who was the tourism director for more than five years. She left in April. 

Wolfe said the pandemic forced a reboot of the state’s tourism roadmap to include things like a grant program to attract meetings and conferences. Denver, like many big cities across the U.S., is suffering from a lack of business travel and conventions, which have yet to recover the way leisure travel has.

“Meetings … and the business traveler really drives things in the Front Range and in the Denver area, and that’s not there,” Wolfe said.

Denver has picked up some leisure travelers, but not enough to offset the decline of business travel, he said. The state’s meeting and event incentive program offers planners a 10 percent rebate of up to $100,000 of the cost for things like venue space, food and transportation for events that take place through December 2022. So far, $700,000 in rebates has been granted, including 13 events in Denver County. The gatherings include everything from business meetings to weddings to a concert series.

Among Wolfe’s priorities is working with business leaders to figure out how to deal with the labor shortage that is affecting large swathes of the economy, including the hospitality industry. Pay is just one piece of the puzzle, he said. For example, flexible schedules are a big driver of job satisfaction, he said. 

“Everybody wants to be part of a group; everybody wants to feel special; everybody wants to feel in control. If companies work on those basic human truths, that’s going to be helpful,” Wolfe said.

Editor's note: The story has been updated. The photo at the top of this story has been changed.