International travelers could provide a boost to Colorados tourism recovery

About a million international visitors a year came to Colorado in more normal times, before pandemic-related travel restrictions kept many would-be visitors out of the country. The easing of those restrictions on Nov. 8 could provide a timely boost to the state’s tourism economy, although one expected to be felt more this summer rather than in the upcoming ski season.

“Our international tourists are very important to us because they are Colorado’s highest value travelers. In terms of economic impact, sustainability, they are an incredibly important market for us,” said Andrea Blankenship, director of international tourism at the Colorado Tourism Office.

Visitors from Canada and Mexico on average spend three times what a domestic tourist will spend on their visits to the state. International tourists from other countries spend on average about five times what domestic tourists do on their visits, she said.

Stated another way, although international tourists only represented 2% of visitors to the state, in normal times they accounted for 8% of tourism spending  — and their absence has left a void the past 19 months. They are a small but mighty crowd, Blankenship said.

International visitors are important to tourism and tourism is important to the Colorado economy, representing about $1 out of every $20 in economic activity in the state, according to the Pew Trust. Although not as tourism-dependent as Nevada or Hawaii, Colorado is up there with the next tier of states such as Arizona, Montana and Florida. And tourism is especially important in many rural areas of the state.

Restrictions on non-citizens entering the U.S., implemented at the start of the pandemic, were lifted last week for vaccinated travelers from 28 European countries, as well as South Africa, Iran, Brazil, India and China. Land borders with Canada and Mexico have also just reopened to vaccinated travelers.

But don’t expect a mad rush. The unvaccinated still can’t enter and vaccines used in Russia and China also aren’t on the approved list for entry into the U.S. Domestic restrictions in place in China and Japan, two important sources of U.S. visitors, also make it difficult for residents there to return if they do leave. And with U.S. consulate offices not operating at full capacity, getting a visa can be daunting.

Blakenship said international visits to Colorado this winter should return to about 30% to 50% of pre-pandemic levels and by next season get back to 85% to 90% of prior levels. The summer rebound will be more noticeable, with international visits back to 70% next year, due in part to pent-up demand in places like the United Kingdom and Germany.

“The pandemic had an obvious and huge impact on international visitations, pushing them down to their lowest level in 25 years,” said Melanie Mills, president and CEO of Colorado Ski Country USA, an industry trade group. Despite a sharp rise in visitors from other states, the lack of international traffic drove a 3.7% decline in overall ski visits last season to the group’s member resorts.

Mills said at some Colorado resorts, international visitors represent a fourth or more of the guests. Those who have been to the state before, representing about half of the international visitors in any given year, are expected to lead the wave of returning foreign skiers. Blankenship adds that Japan became a Colorado alternative for Asian and Australian skiers due to U.S. travel restrictions. But Japan has clamped down in response to a COVID-19 surge this summer, which could work in Colorado’s favor.

Mills said given the long lead time involved with planning ski trips, resorts aren’t expecting a full recovery in international visits, aside from Mexico, which is closer and hasn’t faced the same restrictions on air travel. Where looser travel restrictions may help resorts the most this season is in securing foreign workers who come in on temporary visas.

“They make up a really important component of our seasonal workforce and we have hired a lot of folks to come over this winter,” Mills said. Resorts are trying to bring in 2,000 to 3,000 foreign workers, trying to fill a gap in available workers that has existed in mountain counties long before the pandemic.

Those foreign workers were missing last season, but limits placed on dining and other activities reduced staffing needs. And while the number of foreign workers likely to arrive this year will be down from the past, every bit helps.

“Things are looking better in some countries than in others in terms of folks being able to get appointments in their consular affairs office, but we are optimistic we will have a good solid turnout,” she said, noting the picture should become clearer over the next three to four weeks.

Having enough help will be vital if the state’s tourism industry is to avoid the reputational hit Hawaii took when it struggled to accommodate a surge in visitors, eventually causing Gov. David Ige to ask the public to postpone trips, which travelers started doing.

Colorado’s leisure and hospitality sector, which covers hotels and restaurants, is plagued with severe labor shortages and has a high number of unfilled job openings, similar to other states. But Blankenship said she doesn’t see a Hawaii scenario playing out.

“We are a large, large state with a lot of places that people can visit, and we have a variety of things that we can offer people from camping to luxury stays. We hit on all levels,” Blankenship said.

As international travel opens up more, travelers from other states who visited Colorado during the pandemic may decide they want to go overseas. That could reduce some of the pressure that a continued increase in domestic visits combined with a return of international visits would generate, Blankenship said.

Reduced international visits since the start of the pandemic have cost one million U.S. jobs and $300 billion in lost spending, according to the U.S. Travel Association. That is a big reason the travel industry pushed hard to have the restrictions lifted, as did governments in Europe and other countries being blocked.

“It was very important in both personal and political terms,” Belgium’s ambassador to the United States, Jean-Arthur Régibeau, said in Denver Wednesday after a lunch meeting hosted by the World Trade Center Denver.

It was important in personal terms because families and loved ones were being kept apart. Those individuals are filling the early waves of arrivals to the United States from abroad. In political terms, Europe opened to vaccinated U.S. travelers on July 1 and concerns were growing about why the U.S. was taking so long to reciprocate, Régibeau said.

“We were insisting that they open,” he said.

There are some other ways the easing of travel restrictions could help out. United Airlines, the largest carrier at Denver International Airport, relies heavily on its international routes and is planning to add a new nonstop flight between Denver and Munich next year, which should fare better with recent changes.

Colleges and universities in the state are also expected to start welcoming more international students once again. The University of Colorado Denver is seeing a four-fold increase in applications from abroad, said Catherine Ebert-Gray, director of global education at the university’s Anschutz Medical Campus.

Likewise, some of those international tourists may decide to buy property in the state, especially in resort areas, although Gretchen Rosenberg, CEO of Kentwood Real Estate, said she doesn’t expect that trend to be as pronounced in Colorado as it is in states such as New York, California or Florida.

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