Research Briefs

Drought and tourism

Communities can entice visitors even in dry times

Drought and tourism: Photo of dry, cracked lakebed

A young tech worker in a Virginia office suite may be daydreaming of skiing Colorado’s famed fluffy powder, while a family in Pennsylvania, weary of gray winter skies, plans a summer river float past Rocky Mountain vistas. These are the sorts of visitors who sustain Colorado’s tourism industry, which brought in $14.6 billion in 2010 alone—accounting for roughly 19% of the state’s total economy.

But Colorado’s four-season activities are vulnerable to the vagaries of climate. Drier ski slopes, reduced river flows, and increased wildfires can potentially discourage tourists to the state. Should local officials and business leaders do more to plan for the potential impacts of drought on tourism?

NCAR scientist Olga Wilhelmi worked with collaborators at the University of Colorado at Denver, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, and the Mountain Studies Institute on a pilot project in southwestern Colorado to study the issue. After compiling a detailed list of local officials, businesses, nonprofits, and other stakeholders, the researchers conducted surveys to assess both the level of drought awareness among those stakeholders and the extent to which they planned for drier conditions that would affect their businesses and communities. The researchers also conducted two focus group discussions in Durango and did follow-up interviews.

Wilhelmi and her colleagues found that stakeholders often did not view drought as a business concern. However, communities can take advantage of opportunities to vary offerings during times of drought, such as promoting summer recreational activities if there is a shortened winter, and shifting from water-based sports, such as rafting, boating, or fishing, to other types of sports, such as mountain biking.

“Our findings suggest a distinct opportunity for communities in Colorado, and perhaps communities in neighboring states, to become more resilient to the economic impacts of climate,” Wilhelmi says. “This requires a lot of planning but can be well worthwhile given the importance of tourism to local economies.”

She notes that climate projections indicate an increased risk for future drought across much of the Southwest, making it even more important for local officials and businesses to plan for dry conditions.