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Some Worry About Marijuana's Effect On Colo. Ski Tourism


In Colorado, people are gearing up for the winter tourism season, and there's excitement building for a new attraction - recreational marijuana stores. Yes, some believe pot could be a boon for the tourism industry.

The first such stores in the country will open in Colorado in January. Here's Bente Birkeland, from Rocky Mountain Community Radio.

BENTE BIRKELAND, BYLINE: This past spring, 27-year-old Zay Copa - from Miami, Fla. - came to Colorado for one reason: marijuana.

ZAY COPA: It's just refreshing to do what you like and not being in that stressful environment - like, oh, you're doing something wrong.

BIRKELAND: Copa, his wife and some friends spent several days smoking marijuana and touring the state. Last year, Colorado voted to legalize the sale and use of marijuana. The measure passed by a healthy margin, but was especially popular in resort towns such as Telluride. Nearly 80 percent of voters there said yes. Plans are already in the works for three retail stores in the main business district.

MAYOR STU FRASER: We have probably gone further than most.

BIRKELAND: Stu Fraser is the mayor of Telluride. The town isn't controlling the number of pot shops, or restricting their location. It will also allow grow operations downtown.

FRASER: What we attempt to do is make it right for the folks that live here. Then that ends up really making it right for the people that visit here, too.

BIRKELAND: But Fraser says there is a limit. Telluride turned down a hemp festival, and won't be promoting marijuana to tourists. Neither will the state. Al White directs the Colorado Tourism Office.

AL WHITE: Marijuana is a personal decision, I guess. And it's not something that my office is going to be marketing to. We're going to market to all of the scenic beauty and glorious vistas, recreational opportunities.

BIRKELAND: Tourism is one of Colorado's biggest industries, roughly $17 billion last year. And the state plans to collect data on whether marijuana affects people's travel decisions. Not everyone is sure it'll help the bottom line. The town of Vail has a moratorium on retail marijuana stores. It's also banned medical marijuana dispensaries.

DANIEL SCHWARTZ: This town is driven on a high-class cliental that come out here with their families, for a family vacation and the family experience.

BIRKELAND: Daniel Schwartz is a server at the Red Lion Bar and Restaurant, near the base of Vail Mountain. He's setting up for lunch service on the outside patio. He thinks marijuana could be a turn-off for a lot of tourists.

SCHWARTZ: And I don't think they're going to be using recreational marijuana in the first place.

MARGARET ROGERS: People are going to be able to buy it somewhere.

BIRKELAND: That's Vail town council member Margaret Rogers. She thinks Vail should allow pot shops. Even if her town permanently bans marijuana sales, it would still be legal for adults to use in private.

ROGERS: We might as well generate the tax revenue for it in the town of Vail, rather than having people go to Breckenridge or someplace else that's going to allow it.

BIRKELAND: And niche marijuana tourism companies say there's a demand. In fact, Zay Copa - of Miami - booked his trip with a company called 420 Tours. Copa says the visit included a cooking with marijuana class and touring a medical marijuana dispensary.

COPA: We went because of the legalization of marijuana. But while there, you know, me and my wife - we fell in love, like with the architecture and the cathedrals, the downtown district. My wife was like, I wasn't expecting to like, you know, a cold place as much as I did.

BIRKELAND: So much so that Copa says he and his wife definitely plan to visit again, and may even buy a second home here.

For NPR News, I'm Bente Birkeland in Denver. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bente Birkeland has covered Colorado politics and government since spring of 2006. She loves the variety and challenge of the state capitol beat and talking to people from all walks of life. Bente's work has aired on NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered, American PublicMedia'sMarketplace, and she was a contributor for WNYC's The Next Big Thing. She has won numerous local and national awards, including best beat reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors. Bente grew up in Minnesota and England, and loves skiing, hiking, and is an aspiring cello player. She lives in Lakewood with her husband.

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