Higher gas a tourism hindrance or help?

New tourism attractions in Western Colorado include a zip ride at a Glenwood Springs facility that also includes an alpine coaster, tramway and cave tours. (Photo courtesy Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park)

As the rising price of gasoline takes a bite out of company and family budgets, travel-related firms in the Grand Valley likely will feel the effects. But whether those effects will include an increase or decrease in business is difficult to determine.

“The strategy that we return to is to yet again focus on the regional and drive market,” says Debbie Kovalik, executive director of the Grand Junction Visitor & Convention Bureau.

Just as when retail gasoline prices rose above the $4 a gallon mark in the summer of 2008, Kovalik and other tourism professionals anticipate a decline in the number of visitors who have to travel long distances. But they also see an opportunity to entice nearby residents to save gas while spending money at Grand Valley hotels, restaurants and retail stores.

For one target, Kovalik needs look no farther than the market that always sends the most visitors to the valley. “The Denver Metro region has always been our best market,” she says. “And national hotel chains are saying ‘stay here.’”

Fortunately for Mesa County, people in the West often think of 250 miles as a short trip, which gives the VCB some room in which to promote the “staycation” concept.

“One message is that you can reach Grand Junction on a tank of gas,” Kovalik says. That message can resonate with Denver area residents who might think it would take more than a tank to reach the Grand Valley.

Another reason for optimism in the tourism business is that people might be tired of hanging onto their money, tired of waiting for the “someday” that might offer a better time to treat themselves to a trip. As further enticement, hotels offer more deals during a year in which they have empty rooms.

In the Grand Valley, more hotel rooms will come on the market in June. The Springhill Suites by Marriott will add 100 suites on Main Street in Grand Junction and the Candlewood Suites will open on 24 Road north of the new City Market. The Clarion Inn along Horizon Drive is remodeling one of its buildings and rebranding it as an Econo Lodge with below-average room rates.

“People are looking for bargains,” says Lynne Sorlye, general manager of the Clarion Inn and a member of the VCB board of directors. “You can say we have a sister property.”

Says Kovalik: “Incentives will start to develop again.”

Tourists are also attracted by events, and the Grand Valley has never had more attractions than it boasts this year.

As of press time, an automobile race was scheduled to stop on the Colorado National Monument April 23. The Great Race, which features cars racing from New York City to Paris, also was scheduled to stop at the Gateway Canyons resort.

Other events — including the Colorado Mountain Winefest, Fruita Fat Tire Festival and Palisade Peach Festival — have gained national credibility over the years, Kovalik says.

Toss in the Junior College Baseball World Series, Country Jam and Rock Jam, and the valley offers events throughout the spring and summer.

Of course, Grand Junction also draws tourists because the valley is a central location from which to take day trips to such internationally known destinations as Aspen and Telluride as well as Moab, Utah.

Glenwood Springs is no slouch, either, when it comes to international acclaim.

The world-famous hot springs, river rafting, hiking, biking and camping all draw people to Glenwood Springs during the summer, just as the nearby ski resorts pull in tourists during the winter.

Glenwood has taken a noticeable step toward offering more family attractions in recent years. Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park has added a bungee jump to complement the park’s 4D motion theater, alpine roller coaster, tramway and cave tours.

“And we’ve added a soaring eagle zip ride, from tower to tower, over the alpine coaster,” says Mandy Gauldin, public relations manager for the adventure park.

The park heavily markets to people within a 90-mile radius of Glenwood Springs, and about 7 percent of visitors come from the Grand Valley, Gauldin says.

Back in Mesa County, the slowly recovering economy is reflected partly in increased lodging tax collections at hotels during the final four months of 2010.

Through the first two months of this year, lodging tax collections were more than 2 percent lower than for the same months last year. But local tourism officials think that’s an anomaly and that 2011 ultimately will be a little bit better than 2010.

Says Sorlye: “We think things are turning the corner.”