Fair weather bolsters West's summer tourism

Posted: Friday, September 10, 2004

DENVER Camping in forests free of wildfires for the first time in years. Boating on lakes crippled by drought. Driving to see spectacular scenery despite frustratingly high gasoline prices.

The tourists are back.

Tourism officials from Oregon to Arizona's Grand Canyon National Park say they have had one of the best summer seasons in years, crediting a lack of devastating fires, a recovering economy that encouraged more travel and even rain.

''The summer was phenomenal for our business; cool temperatures, rainy,'' said John Cochran of Gorsuch Outfitters in Edwards, Colo., which offers fly fishing excursions in the Vail Valley. ''I still think that people are cautious with their money but I think we've seen some forward momentum.''

Patrick Peebles and his wife, Vanessa, took a recent trip to Glenwood Springs in western Colorado but only filled half of their SUV's gas tank for the trip home to Denver, noting the price averaged $2.25 a gallon. ''It was a little ridiculous,'' Patrick Peebles said.

A record number of Americans 34.1 million was expected to travel out of town over Labor Day weekend, building on what has been a solid showing for leisure trips this summer, the American Automobile Association said.

Overall, summer travel is expected to be up 3.2 percent nationwide, which would be one of the biggest increases since 2000, said Cathy Keefe of Travel Industry Association of America.

''There's been sort of this pent-up demand for travel,'' she said. ''We're seeing a return to the air, a return to higher spending; in fact, summer travel spending is expected to be up 4.5 percent over last summer.''

While pockets of the West struggling with drought have reported drops in visitors, most areas have seen steady to higher numbers despite gas prices topping $2 a gallon, the lingering worries about a terrorist attack and the ongoing war with Iraq.

Hotels, lodges and campsites have been full in many parks and tourist areas.

The Timberline Lodge, built in 1937 on the flank of Mount Hood, Ore., has been booked nearly every weekend with overall business up slightly from last year, spokesperson Jon Tullis said.

''It's like an engine hitting on all eight cylinders,'' Tullis said. ''The days go by quickly, things feel good, there is good momentum.''

At Grand Canyon National Park, visitor figures increased 6.4 percent between January and July compared with the same time in 2003. ''We've had long lines here about every day of the week since Memorial Day,'' said Jim O'Sickey, a National Park Service analyst.

Las Vegas tourism officials expect visitor numbers to best last summer's figures. The June tally was up 2.2 percent, the latest figure available.

Outside the New York-New York hotel-casino, Kerry McIlhaney and his wife, Lisa, said they didn't let concerns about terrorism halt their plans to visit from Houston.

''I'm more worried about someone picking my pocket than doing something bad,'' Kerry McIlhaney, 41, said. ''If it's going to happen to you, it's going to happen.''

Despite a 90-foot drop in Lake Mead near Las Vegas, more boaters arrived as employees cleared ramps to make the shrinking lake accessible, Kay Rohde of the Lake Mead National Recreation Area said.

Lake Powell on the Arizona-Utah line, which is at its lowest level since the 1960s, has seen visits drop by about 4 percent this year, likely due to an erroneous perception that the lake is inaccessible, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area spokesperson Char Obergh said.

''We will continue to extend our ramps,'' she said. ''Going up into the canyons, you'll be able to see things that have been underwater for many years.''

The drought has hurt tourism at many New Mexico state parks where arid conditions have triggered fire restrictions and affected lake levels, said Dave Simon of the New Mexico State Parks Division.

In the past three years, there has been an 11 percent drop in visitors for the May-August season, Simon said. Elephant Butte near Truth or Consequences, the state's largest lake, has been hit hard. The state's national parks also have reported visit drops.

However, visits have risen since 2002 in two-thirds of state parks that do not depend solely on water recreation.

For the first time in years, a lack of devastating wildfires has helped boost tourism.

''It's been bumper-to-bumper traffic,'' said Tracey Smith of the Chamber of Commerce in McCall on Payette Lake, one of Idaho's most popular summer destinations. Smith believes people are vacationing closer to home because of concerns over the war on terrorism.

At Mesa Verde National Park in southwest Colorado, visitors increased 3.4 percent as of July, while at Yellowstone National Park in the northwest corder of Wyoming, visitor numbers remained steady, officials said.

Smaller crowds were reported at California's Yosemite National Park, where ranger Scott Gediman speculated some were deterred by high gas prices. He also said a dry spring left some waterfalls dry or running on less water.

On the flip side, cool, rainy weather was faulted for keeping crowds down at the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial in Montana. ''We are certainly seeing an increase in visitation, just not the large numbers we were expecting in the beginning,'' said Betsy Baumgart of Travel Montana.

At Rocky Mountain National Park northwest of Denver, a ''very, very wet'' summer caused a 7 percent drop in visitors, although campgrounds were mostly full and ''the wildflowers were beautiful,'' spokesperson Kyle Patterson said.

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