Tourism looking healthy in Tri-Lakes region

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The massive Black Forest Fire that destroyed almost 500 homes and burned more 14,000 acres in June seems to have had only a slight affect - either way - on summer tourism in the Tri-Lakes area.

Officials at the area’s top two tourist destinations - Air Force Academy Visitors Center and Chapel, and the Western Museum of Mining and Industry - had varying accounts of guests at their facilities.

“We were affected (in 2012) from the Waldo Canyon Fire, just like everyone else was,” said Dave Futey, manager of the Western Mining Museum. “And even though we were closed for three days this year because of the Black Forest Fire, in general, we’re on par with what we were two years ago.”

The Black Forest Fire caused many businesses in the immediate area to close down for a time, or shorten their hours. The Mining Museum was on pre evacuation the third day of the fire (June 13).

“Even when we were closed we had people show up a couple of days,” Futey said. “I guess they weren’t aware of the severity of what was going on.”

Futey did not have exact numbers on summer tourism at the Mining Museum, but he did note that the museum experiences its busiest tourist season from late may to early August.

“We usually see it pick up again after Labor Day and we see a bump for about a month,” he said.

Futey added that school group volume is heaviest in April and May, and then again from September through early November.

The Air Force Academy also was not able to provide exact figures on the number of tourists or guests that have passed through its gates. But John Van Winkle, the AFAs’ deputy chief, media relations, said that 156,000 people made their way into the visitor’s center from January through June of this year. During the time period in 2012, 184,000 had been counted.

“There’s always going to be some fluctuation over the years,” said Van Winkle, who noted that 441,000 passed through visitor’s center all of last year. “The fires don’t help with tourism.

“We might have better numbers with people who go to the visitor’s center than the gift shop or chapel. It’s hard to say.”

The Tri-Lakes Chamber of Commerce reported a steady flow of visitors this year.

“It’s about the same as it’s been in previous years,” said office manager Kelli Rose. “During the summer months we get a lot more people that come in here. The two biggest things that they want to know about are Pikes Peak and Garden of the Gods.”

Rose added that folks wanting to explore the immediate Tri-Lakes area show interest in fishing and hiking its many trails.

“They want to get back to nature, she said.

Many attractions in the Pikes Peak region have reported increases in numbers of patrons.

“We’ve been pretty consistent all summer,” said Jeff Wolin, a park ranger at Florissant Fossil Beds in Teller County. “We thought we might see a drop off with the Black Forest Fire and Royal Gorge Fire, but it wasn’t that noticeable. “There were rumors that I-25 was shut down, but that never happened. Folks continue to make their way here.”

Down Ute Pass at Cave of the Winds, tourism is also up. Human resource director Ann Tilley said the attraction is averaging more than 400 visitors per day.

“July is our busiest month,” Tilley said. “We’re seeing good numbers. Holiday weeks we see a lot more visitors.’

The Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau spend upwards of $1 million annually promoting the Pikes Peak Region.

The CVB tracks figures from year to year. Its latest report runs through April and showed an increase of 1.91 percent from April 2012.

“It’s always difficult in the middle of the summer to say whether we’re up or down,” said Chelsy Murphy, the CVB director of communications. “Indications are that we’re up, but we won’t know the actual numbers for a few months.”

Last July, the CVB launched an aggressive advertising campaign directed at combating the negative stigma attached with the Waldo Canyon Fire. The “Welcome Back” campaign was directed at encouraging visitors to experience the area’s 55 attractions and activities.

The CVB dipped into reserves for an additional $135,000, got another $65,000 in donations, and also received a $100,000 grant from Colorado senator Michael Bennet.

“Tourism is the third largest employer in the Pikes Peak Region with 14,000 jobs,” Murphy said.

Murphy added that as much as $1.35 billion is infused into the economy each year through tourism.

Military and defense are the two biggest employers in the region.