Colorado, Denver reap record visits in 2010

Go ahead, call it a comeback.

Both Colorado and Denver saw record visitation and visitor spending in 2010, marking a full recovery from two years of economic turmoil.

Luring a bigger slice of the country’s travelers, Colorado and its capital broke all kinds of records last year. According to a report released Wed nesday by research firm Longwoods International, Colorado welcomed a record 55.1 million visitors in 2010, including a highest-ever 28.9 million overnight visitors who spent $8.8 billion, another record.

Denver, flush with revenue from a 2005 voter-approved lodgers tax that fuels tourism marketing, hosted a record 12.7 million visitors who spent $3 billion, yet another record.

With the state’s 26 ski resorts surging past 12 million skier visits for the first time in two seasons, it’s safe to assume Colorado has regained its position in the nation’s tourism market.

Richard Scharf, president of Visit Denver and chairman of the Colorado Tourism Office board, called the results “really phenomenal.”

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper set aside $13 million for annual tourism funding for the next two years, keeping the budget close to pre-recession levels. And with other states — such as Washington, Texas and Florida — pulling back on tourism funding, the recent momentum in tourism visitation marks an opportunity to expand Colorado’s slowly increasing 2.6 percent share of the country’s tourism market, Scharf said.

“They are looking at (tourism marketing) as an expense, not an investment,” Scharf said. “We are showing that we are growing our share at the expense of other destinations.”

Al White, who spent more than a decade in the Colorado legislature before taking over as director of the Colorado Tourism Office this year, spent almost every day of his legislative tenure championing tourism marketing investment as a jobs creator that stirs rural economies. The latest study proves his point, with Colorado’s tourism figures steadily climbing since the state restored funding in 2000. Legislators in 1992 eliminated the tax, and voters in 1993 rejected a new 0.2 percent sales tax to promote Colorado tourism.

“Now, 19 years later, we are at our old high-water mark,” White said.

Orrin and Margaret Beckner came to Denver this week from Grand Junction to visit family and tour the city’s museums. They once lived in Denver in the mid-1970s, and Orrin admitted: “We never imagined we’d be coming to Denver for a vacation.”

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