Report: Summit County tourism spending exceeds $1 billion, 3rd highest in state

Delilah Cupp skis Feb. 4 at Arapahoe Basin Ski Area.
Ian Zinner / Arapahoe Basin Ski Area

FRISCO — Tourism spending of more than $1 billion in Summit County in 2018 ranks as the third highest in Colorado, behind only Denver and El Paso counties, according to a report from the Colorado Tourism Office. That spending total is up about $524 million from 2010.

Sales taxes from Summit County municipalities reflect this trend of increased spending. The town of Breckenridge reported a 7% year-to-date increase in net taxable sales from 2018-2019 based on November numbers. Using the same parameters, Frisco reported a 6.67% increase in sales taxes, Dillon reported a 12.21% increase, and Silverthorne reported an 8.99% increase.

In Eagle County, travel spending seems to be declining as it was above $1 billion in 2015 through 2017 but dipped to about $968 million in 2018. Pitkin County, which is where Aspen is located, has not exceeded $1 billion in the 11 years the report has been done, recording $766.7 million in travel spending in 2018. Overall, direct travel spending in Colorado in 2018 exceeded $22.3 billion. 

Breckenridge Tourism Office spokeswoman Austyn Dineen said money collected from tourism has been used by the town of Breckenridge to improve the quality of life for local residents. 

“The town of Breckenridge has been extremely proactive in improving the destination and quality of life for residents by investing in the future of the community through tourism,” Dineen wrote in an email. “Dollars collected directly fund the high quality of life for the Breckenridge resident through recreational offerings.”

Dineen cited the $17 million in tourism revenue — from lodging taxes, sales taxes, real estate transfer taxes, etc. — that went toward Breckenridge Recreation Center renovations, $22 million that has gone toward protecting open space, $1.2 million that went toward public transportation in 2018 and $35 million that went toward attainable housing initiatives in 2017 and 2018.

“Sales taxes make up 70% of our budget, and so we live and die by sales taxes, and that means we live and die by tourists,” Silverthorne Town Manager Ryan Hyland said. 

While money from tourism is vital for local business owners and governments, there also have been concerns raised about sustainable tourism, as evidenced in local issues surrounding event fatigue, short-term rentals and traffic.

By the numbers

1. Denver County: 7.64 billion
2. El Paso County: 1.56 billion
3. Summit County: 1.11 billion
4. Arapahoe County: 1.05 billion
5. Eagle County: 968.5 million
6. Pitkin County: 766.7 million
7. Larimer County: 714.6 million
8. Jefferson County: 647 million
9. Boulder County: 579 million
10. Adams County: 492 million

Source: 2018 Colorado Travel Impacts report prepared for the Colorado Tourism Office by Dean Runyan Associates

Dineen explained that Breckenridge recently created a Destination Management Plan to sustainably manage visitor volumes after its average annual hotel occupancy rate saw an increase of 7.2% from 2006-2019.

Hyland added that Interstate-70 could be considered a natural restriction to tourism, as traffic can restrict how much opportunity visitors have to get to the county. 

“Certainly, there are times when we experience congestion,” Hyland said. “But most of the time, it’s very comfortable, easy to get around, easy to get into a restaurant, easy to get your shopping done.”

Hyland said that while there are traffic and congestion issues that have to be managed at peak times, he believes there is more opportunity to welcome visitors.

“We’re very much cognizant that Summit County is very dependent on tourism dollars, but we also know that we need to keep the visitor experience very positive,” Colorado Association of Ski Towns Executive Director Margaret Bowes said. 

Bowes said the association works to educate new residents and visitors about good local stewardship, such as backcountry etiquette and leave no trace principles. The education of new residents is just as relevant as the education of visitors, she said, because of the projected population growth of the county. The state demographer predicts Summit will see a 12.7% increase in population from 2020-2025.

Bowes added that one of the biggest issues associated with tourism is traffic. 

“Maybe we can handle more people at certain peak times, but we are finding we can’t handle more vehicles,” Bowes said.

Keystone Resort pictured Wednesday, Jan. 29.
Courtesy Branden Smith / Keystone Resort

To mitigate this issue, Bowes said towns and other organizations are working to encourage visitors to use public transportation.

Another way to mitigate traffic issues is to encourage guests to stay in town for overnight visits rather than take day trips, according to Frisco spokeswoman Vanessa Agee. 

“Town council has been very clear that they want to make sure that we support a thriving economy and sustainable environment by encouraging overnight stays rather than day trips,” Agee said, noting that when people stay in town they walk, bike or use the bus more than when passing through for the day. “We think it offers the best visitor experience.”

Agee said she was unsurprised by the results of the Colorado Travel Impacts study as Colorado’s tourism economy continues to grow and Summit County is a relatively short drive from Denver. 

“Frisco Town Council has been diligent around being strategic and thoughtful about economic development,” Agee said. “It really is about striking harmony rather than balance.”

While Agee feels that it is impossible to reach a balance between a great visitor experience and a great quality of life for locals every day of the year, she said the idea of harmony is leveling out the high peaks of visitors with the periods of low tourist volume.

Agee also pointed out that the primary paid marketing line item on the town budget has not gone up in six years. 

“Council has done that because they realize the importance of holding steady,” Agee said.

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