A year ago, as the scope of the COVID-19 pandemic came into focus, Durangoans who count on tourism braced for what they feared might be a lost season.
While numbers looked grim initially, Durango’s outdoor attractions, its proximity to the San Juan National Forest, Mesa Verde National Park and other outdoor activities proved one of the more benign formulas to weather the viral storm the novel coronavirus delivered in 2020.
“Of course, we were down in the city. For the year, we were down in visitation in occupancy and in lodgers tax collections, but the season certainly was better than we had anticipated initially,” said Rachel Brown, executive director of Visit Durango. “We’re remote, we’re rural, we’re pretty far from an urban center, and those all turned out to be advantages that we maybe didn’t realize a year ago.”
According to Smith Travel Report, occupancy in La Plata County hotels was 47.5% in 2020 compared with 62.1% in 2019.
At times, the numbers looked grimmer.
Lodgers taxes in April 2020, which are based on rooms rented in March, were down 51.5% in Durango compared with the same month in 2019. Monthly lodgers taxes hit bottom in May 2020 – down 77.1% compared with May 2019. June was no picnic, down 72.8% from June 2019.
But in late summer, lodgers tax numbers improved steadily, and Durango finished 2020 collecting $766,615 in taxes from room rents for the year, down 30.4% compared with 2019. But in context of the monthly drop of 77.1% in May, that 30.4% decline can be viewed as a small victory.
Many shops downtown noticed a turn in late June.
Late summer through November, when the virus surged, tourism was stronger than anyone would have thought earlier in the year.
Tom Dragt, co-owner with his wife, Carrie, of Old Colorado Vintage, reported that August 2020 was the best month the store has had since it opened seven years ago.
“People still want to travel. But they don’t want to be in crowds,” he said. “They don’t want to go to Disneyland. They don’t want to go to Las Vegas. People come to Colorado to be outdoors, and outdoors, it’s easy to social-distance.”
Brown said she believes tourists will continue to seek outdoor adventures at least through this year.
“There’s a lot of pent-up demand for travel,” she said. “Even with the COVID vaccine, at least for a while, I think people are going to put a premium on remote locations with recreational and outdoor opportunities. That’s going to continue for a while.”
Down the road, Brown sees another silver lining: Because of increased telecommuting and online learning, the Southwest Colorado tourism season could grow beyond late spring and late fall as families can travel without missing work or school.