“Roll up, roll up for the mystery tour Roll up, roll up for the mystery tour Roll up (We’ve got everything you need), roll up for the mystery tour Roll up (Satisfaction guaranteed), roll up for the mystery tour The magical mystery tour is hoping to take you away Hoping to take you away”
— from the Beatles’
“Magical Mystery Tour”
A Cadillac Escalade stretch limo winds around the road on the south side of Lake Dillon. Light fades during sunset, reddening the western horizon over the Gore Range, while deep purple stains the sky above the Continental Divide to the east.
The lights of Frisco and Dillon flicker like stars on opposite shores of a cosmic abyss. And inside the limo, lighters spark over bowls, illuminating faces in a flash, followed by billowing clouds of sativa smoke.
The scenic, marijuana-infused drive around Lake Dillon is but one part of a series of luxury cannabis tours conducted by a Summit County company.
“This is definitely a one-of-a-kind experience,” said Philip Wolf, director of development for Cultivating Spirits, the company hosting the tours.
Although several other entrepreneurs from Colorado and elsewhere have also started conducting cannabis tours, Wolf said Cultivating Spirits has set its trips apart by putting the focus on luxury.
WE’VE GOT EVERYTHING YOU NEED
Is the legalization of marijuana leading to more tourism in the state? The question is not easily answered.
The Colorado Office of State Planning and Budgeting reported the state received $19 million during the first half of the year in tax revenue from the sale of recreational marijuana and more than $34 million total.
However, it’s difficult to know statewide what percentage of those recreational sales figures can be attributed to tourists. One state study found that tourists are responsible for as much as 90 percent of recreational pot sales in some ski towns. Recreational sales certainly spike at Breckenridge dispensaries when flocks of tourists are in town, according to tax revenue data.
Colorado also has posted a record ski season and a record summer tourist season since legalization.
Even college applications are up. Colorado State University has seen a 30 percent increase in out-of-state applicants since the beginning of the year.
And a recent study released by Massachusetts-based travel firm Hopper found a marked increase in traveler interests. Its results showed traveler interest in Colorado has increased by 20 percent since recreational marijuana first hit the market Jan. 1.
“The early data overwhelmingly demonstrates that Colorado’s program is a success,” Mike Elliot of the Marijuana Industry Group said in a statement earlier this month. “The dire predictions of our opponents have failed to materialize. Colorado is seeing record tourism, record real estate and increases in tax revenue and jobs.”
Ralf Garrison is a senior analyst at DestiMetrics, a Denver company that studies lodging patterns in the Mountain West. While he confirmed that he can’t find a direct correlation between the legalization of recreational marijuana and the increased tourism, he said he believes there is definitely a connection between the two.
“We can’t draw a clear correlation with the research we have, but we do know when more tourists are in town, recreational marijuana sales increase,” Garrison said. “The three busiest days of marijuana sales in the Denver area have coincided with the biggest sporting events of the year.”
He said while marijuana might not be the primary reason tourists are visiting Colorado, it’s become a secondary activity.
“It’s like if someone takes a trip to the mountains to go biking, they might later decide to go fly-fishing, too,” Garrison said. “The tourists are traveling here for one activity, but many are adding a stop by the dispensary to their itinerary.”
COMING TO TAKE YOU AWAY
While Garrison finds tourists might not be flocking to Colorado exclusively for marijuana, Wolf wants to change that with his company’s high-end tours.
Cultivating Spirits offers several types of tours. The day-long excursion features trips to grows, dispensary tours and glass blowing. The “Sensational Fusion Experience” includes a gourmet dinner, wine tastings and pairings of marijuana strains with particular meals. The “THC Fusion Experience” provides instruction on cooking with cannabis. The company also hosts and caters private events, such as weddings and corporate retreats, and can customize the experience depending on what the client wants.
The tours have been up and running for a couple of months now, attracting a variety of tourists.
On a tour last Saturday, the group was treated to an in-depth discussion of how to cook with cannabis by Jessica Catalano, author of “The Ganja Kitchen Revolution: The Bible of Cannabis Cuisine.” The tour group included some people well versed in cannabis culture and others with little to no experience.
The group gathered at tables set up around a professional kitchen while Catalano shared knowledge and answered questions that proved helpful to novice and expert alike.
“I had a lot wrong,” said Nick, who was on the tour with a couple of friends from Denver and asked that his last name not be used. “As far as the cooking goes I learned a lot. I had the cooking times and temperatures wrong. It was good to know that in just an hour you can get the cannabis profile locked into the butter, which can then come through in the meal. We’re going to experiment with this.”
After the educational segment and a gourmet appetizer, the group loaded into the limo to visit a local dispensary, High Country Healing, in Silverthorne. There the budtenders spent time discussing strains, in particular Casey Jones, a sativa with an earthy and citrus-like flavor that was being paired with the gourmet dinner and dessert to be served later.
“We educate about the history of the strain and how to pair it with food,” Wolf said.
For instance, one of the tours featured Durban Poison, a strain native to the South African port town. It was paired with pan-seared halibut, incorporating flavors and geography into the pairing.
Following the trip to the dispensary, the limo cruised around the lake, while the group was able to sample the cannabis in the back. While smoking cannabis in public and on public roadways is against the law, the partition dividing the driver from the activities in the back make it perfectly legal. It’s the same way the law applies to drinking alcohol inside a limo.
Everyone is provided with a new glass pipe and a lighter. After sampling the wares, and strong appetites start to kick in, the limo made its way back to the kitchen where Catalano was adding the final touches to a meal featuring steak and pan-seared wild Alaskan salmon. A dessert of chocolate mousse covering soft butter cookies highlighted by a sprig of fresh mint and a raspberry, capped the experience. Then the limo dropped the tourgoers back at their condos and hotels.
By the end of the night, most of the tourists had a greater appreciation for marijuana and the future of the industry.
“I think this kind of thing is going to become even more prevalent,” said Brent, of Denver, who asked that his last named not be used. “For example, I think you’ll see more marijuana-themed weddings. Obviously we’ve had that happen already. I think cannabis-themed events and cannabis tourism is a rising industry.”
One man on the tour was interested in starting his own marijuana-based business, possibly a bed and breakfast, and was on the tour to learn all he could about this nascent industry.
MAKE A RESERVATION
Cultivating Spirits isn’t the first to hold cannabis tours.
A company in Denver has started a similar business, but not as high-end as the Silverthorne tour. My 420 Tours conducts tours every Saturday with prices ranging from $150 for a day tour to more than $1,200 for a three-day tour on which patrons stay in marijuana-friendly hotels.
Even some out-of-state entrepreneurs are getting involved. Rick Moore owns R.L. Moore Bus Tours of Dallas. Since February he’s been orchestrating marijuana tours. He takes passengers on the 12-hour drive from Dallas to Denver, where they then visit dispensaries and spend a night or two at a hotel before trekking back to a non-cannabis region.
And these tours actually provide a critical need for marijuana tourists by providing a safe and legal place to use herb.
The biggest issue tourists face is finding a place to smoke. According to the law, marijuana cannot be consumed in public. It’s very difficult to find any private establishment that will allow it. And most every hotel has a no-smoking policy. Consequently, hotel rooms with balconies are in much higher demand.
“Hotel managers and owners have noticed this and are taking advantage by setting higher rates on rooms with balconies,” Garrison said. “More than ever people want to be part of Colorado cool.”
Meanwhile, Wolf is focused on growing his burgeoning tourism business. For a couple of years he’s worked as a consultant for grows, helping growers increase their yields and potency. His background in the industry gives him a deeper experience and understanding, which he then uses when designing the tours. And the company is giving 5 percent of all profits back to local charities.
“We’re just trying to create a safe, comfortable and fun setting,” Wolf said. “And you don’t have to consume cannabis to enjoy this. It’s still enjoyable to come along and learn about the process while sampling gourmet food and wine and learning about the history and the laws. It’s a really awesome experience.”
While the debate continues on whether the record number of tourists is marijuana-related, there’s no question tourists are taking advantage and so are entrepreneurs.
“We’re just trying to create a safe, comfortable and fun setting. And you don’t have to consume cannabis to enjoy this.”