The Gold King Mine spill will have lasting implications, but to what degree will they impact tourism, in what way and for how long? Simple answer: It’s too early to know, but we do have some thoughts.
After the initial announcement, the Durango Area Tourism Office was immediately plugged into communications with multiple agencies that were monitoring the developing story. Like everyone, DATO staff members tried to make sense of events and what it meant to our visitors. While our job is to promote all that is great about our area, this was first and foremost a personal affront to us as residents, parents and friends-of-friends who love this area. Our river was damaged, and we were angry.
Tourists in town were our first priority. They were becoming aware the river was closed, and they asked us about alternate venues for fishing, rafting and other activities.
Questions about drinking water and other impacts were answered honestly. Our answers were based on the most recent reports from outside agencies.
People were sympathetic, adjusted activities accordingly, and few felt their vacations were compromised.
Lodging properties were reporting few early checkouts attributable to the incident. We were weathering the initial impact.
Then, a week later, the story peaked nationally with images from the day of the spill, when the river was visibly at its worst.
As awareness spread, people with plans to visit Durango understandably had questions. We distributed frequently asked questions to tourism-dependent businesses and the public. Again, visitors responded with strong support, and their fall 2015 plans to visit were generally unaltered.
Unfortunately, this summer, the Durango-area brand had already been smudged. Even before the spill, tourists were expressing strong displeasure with the increase in panhandling transients. The Gold King Mine spill now adds another challenge to repairing a damaged brand.
Efforts are underway to explore options to increase marketing for the next couple of years when a drop-off in tourism usually follows a disaster and negative news stories.
No question, we’ve taken an undeserved punch. As locals, the incident awakened us to issues and emotions about things we may have ignored. But for our resilient guests, many of whom are longtime loyal visitors who care about this town, the Durango vacation experience will prevail.
While long-term impacts to the river basin will hold our attention for years, the tourism experience that we promote has been restored with the re-opening of the river for recreation. It may not be “business as usual,” but it is business as the visitor expects it to be. We will confidently continue to promote our region as offering a “Dozen Vacations in One Destination.” For now, the best road to recovery is to keep doing what we do best: high quality experiences and friendly faces.
firstname.lastname@example.org. Bob Kunkel is executive director of the Durango Area Tourism Office.