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Nature, outdoors key to selling tourism in Southwest Colorado

Cyclists ride by a large banner near the dam at Vallecito Reservoir on May 29 reminding people to wear masks.

Southwest Colorado’s calling card, nature, will be key in a recovery of the tourism sector from the blows it’s taken because of restrictions to slow the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re heading into the summer with a lot of open space and natural attractions that I believe, as things open back up, folks are going to be interested in,” said Kelly Kirkpatrick, executive director of Mesa Verde Country, which markets tourism in Montezuma County.

While developed campgrounds in the San Juan National Forest are only beginning to reopen after the initial COVID-19 stay-at-home order was put in place March 27, trails and other public lands remained open through the lockdowns.

Kirkpatrick said that while the Visitors Center at Canyons of the Ancients National Monument has been closed during the COVID-19 restrictions, the trails remained open. The same was true at Hovenweep National Monument.

“We’re not a congested metropolitan city. We have lots of space to spread out and all that space is still open and free. I mean, we have a ton of free things to do, and I think that will really help us when people look to travel again,” Kirkpatrick said.

Mesa Verde Country had already planned to launch an advertising campaign touting Montezuma County’s mountain biking opportunities, and Kirkpatrick said it should begin in June, just as active millennials and young adults look to escape their COVID-19 forced sedentary lifestyles.

Kirkpatrick said Mesa Verde Country is working to communicate health orders in place and is gauging the community’s comfort with resuming tourism advertising.

“We’re not being irresponsible with our marketing. We are sensitive to our residents. It’s like inviting someone into your home. You want your residents to feel comfortable inviting travelers into your home. And so we’re really going to pivot off of the temperament of the community,” she said.

Mesa Verde Country, she said, wants to promote its opportunities as “natural distancing.”

Paul Eckenrode, president of Vallecito Lake Chamber of Commerce, said his marketing campaign has shifted to provide an educational message – providing visitors with information about health restrictions in place.

During normal times, the general marketing strategy for Vallecito, he said is to piggyback off efforts by the state and Visit Durango – to ensure people interested in Southwest Colorado know about the opportunities available around the lake.

With the arrival of COVID-19, Eckenrode said he is now trying to communicate to visitors rules from San Juan Basin Public Health.

“As best we can, we’re trying to ensure everyone understands the guidelines,” he said. “We want to not only allow our businesses to prepare and make the proper accommodations for whatever guidelines are in place, but we also want to be able to communicate those guidelines in as real time as possible to the people who are coming to visit.”

DeAnne Gallegos, executive director of Silverton Chamber of Commerce, said the Silverton chamber is coordinating its tourism marketing message with Visit Durango and other regional and Western Slope destination marketing organizations to provide a consistent message during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are working on a mid- to late-summer marketing strategy while creating a localized message to our guests about the COVID-19 regulations to set up a positive experience for not only our guests but our business owners as well,” Gallegos said in an email.


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