Tourists flocked to the San Luis Valley and other Southern Colorado destinations in 2021

Nathaniel Minor/CPR News
Blanca Peak towers over the dune field in the Great Sand Dunes Park and Preserve, as seen from the foothills on the east side of the park. 

Tourism recovered and even increased in many areas of Southern Colorado last year, after a pandemic plunge during 2020.

A recent report by the Colorado Tourism Office shows substantial upticks when comparing pre-pandemic 2019 numbers with 2021, for places with access to outdoor recreation, like Chaffee County which was up nearly 20 percent in direct travel spending.

Another area that saw a jump in tourism numbers during that same time period was the San Luis Valley region which had a 23 percent increase. Colorado Tourism Office Director Tim Wolfe said that area appealed to both Coloradans and people in neighboring states, who wanted to take road trips instead of flying.

“The vaccinations were still coming together at the beginning of 2021,” he said. “So social distancing was important in the outdoor space.”

Urban areas like Colorado Springs and Denver that have more business and convention travelers rebounded last year too, Wolfe said, but haven’t quite returned to pre-pandemic levels. 

Travel spending in El Paso County in  2021 and tourism industry jobs were down about four and 10 percent respectively when comparing 2019 and 2021, but up 55.5 and 11.6 percent between 2020 and 2021.

Tourism in all of these areas may face some headwinds though, because competition from other destinations may reduce the number of travelers in the state, according to Wolfe.

“We could have some reverberations over the next couple of years,” he said, “as things continue to progress in the recovery side.”

Wolfe said his office is monitoring the effects of inflation and increasing gas prices on tourism. Industry job numbers are also rebounding in many southern Colorado counties, but have not yet reached pre-pandemic levels.