Debunking myths about tourism

In my recent journeys around Colorado, I've been surprised at how poor information can take on a life of its own - and even gain traction as a widely accepted truth. That's what we call a myth. And like the five below, myths get in the way of good decision-making.
Myth #1: They will come regardless.

Back in 1993, Colorado became a national case study for what happens when a state axes funding for tourism promotion in the mistaken belief that advertising is unnecessary. A much-acclaimed study by a nationally focused research group showed Colorado ultimately cost its economy well over $2 billion a year by eliminating its $12 million tourism budget. And that was nearly two decades ago.
Years of hard work following restoration of the tourism budget in 2000 built Colorado tourism into an $18.6 billion industry as of 2014, yet hardly a week goes by that someone doesn't ask me something along these lines: "Why market Colorado? People would come here anyway."

Myth #2: Those numbers aren't real.

The Colorado Tourism Office contracts with three separate research firms each year to measure its performance. Dean Runyon reports the economic impact of tourism spending across the state and county by county. Longwoods profiles both business and leisure travelers to add in targeting and calculate per-trip spending. Strategic Marketing and Research Insights (SMARI) fields surveys twice a year to measure the return on investment of our marketing campaigns.

Despite all the dollars invested and rigor around research methods, it's not uncommon for someone to say, "We don't really believe your numbers." Clearly, there's a breakdown in communication. What I'm hearing is a need for our results to be shared in more convincing, credible way. I'm open to suggestions.

Myth #3: Tourists are clogging our roads.

Earlier this year, I was given a heads-up on a group who wasn't convinced Colorado needed to promote tourism. Why? Because tourists were already clogging the roads for Coloradans.

The Colorado Department of Transportation has reams of studies to discount that notion. Colorado's highways are busy mainly because our population has boomed by 50 percent over the last 20 years. Far more than visitors, Colorado's population growth is filling our interstates.

CDOT also finds that visitors tend to hit the road at different hours from working and day-tripping Coloradans. Visitors aren't inconveniencing Coloradans. Road capacity is.

Myth #4: Legal marijuana drives nearly half of Colorado's tourism.

A news article last December reporting that 48 percent of Colorado visitors traveled here because of legal marijuana has been so widely repeated that it's now taken as fact. Tyler Henson, president of the Colorado Cannabis Chamber of Commerce, says the marijuana industry only wishes that number were true.

The statistic was publicly discredited by the research firm that produced it. While 48 percent of respondents said legal marijuana influenced their trip, the survey question failed to determine whether the influence was positive or negative, major or minor. Did the availability of legal marijuana make them change their plans, redirect their itinerary, affect their satisfaction or give them pause? The survey can't tell us.

A different question in the same survey yields far more insight. When asked what they did while traveling in Colorado, 8 percent said they visited a marijuana dispensary. Henson says even that seems a bit high.

Myth #5: Tourism marketing promotes only tourism.

In a recent study of nine states, Longwoods demonstrated how each state's tourism promotion campaign created a "halo effect," lifting not only visitorship, but driving business development, real estate sales, purchase of second homes and even college recruitment. When combined with an actual visit, the impact of tourism marketing on all these activities was even more magnified. Except for North Dakota.

Based on these findings, the state of Michigan abandoned its economic development marketing campaign, instead funneling $37 million this year into its blockbuster "Pure Michigan" tourism campaign, knowing that message would also drive business attraction, development and retention.

Unchallenged, myths can deflect attention from real issues and get in the way of real solutions. But more importantly, bad information just goes against the grain in our "Come To Life" state, where we value being in touch with our best self and being inspired by possibility. Find out more at


Cathy Ritter is Colorado's State Tourism Director


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