Last updated: 03:38 PM ET, Mon April 14 2014

Marijuana Tourism: The Reluctant Boom

Tour Operator David Cogswell February 10, 2014

Marijuana Tourism: The Reluctant Boom

PHOTO: The idea of price boards at marijuana dispensaries like this one in the Netherlands has tourism executives a bit squeamish on how to proceed. (courtesy ThinkStock)

As a writer in the travel industry, I’m used to getting calls back promptly when I call a tourism promotion agency with a question about tourism. That’s what they do, after all.

They seize on any opportunity to promote their destinations via virtually any media outlet. “Eager” is not a strong enough word for tourism officials encountering an opportunity to promote their destinations.  

But when I called Colorado Tourism to ask if anyone could comment on the implications of the legalization of marijuana in regard to tourism, I was told by the polite young man who answered the phone that it is Amber who handles inquiries on that subject and he would transfer me to her line. When he disappeared from the line I found myself in Amber’s voicemail. So I left a message explaining the purpose of my call. That may have been an error.

Amber? Was that a pseudonym, or just a coincidence?

A couple of days went by and I realized no one had returned my call. I tried again and left another voicemail. Gradually it dawned on me that Colorado Tourism did not want to talk about this subject.

I had read that the state’s tourism promotion entities were asking for a one-year moratorium on promoting marijuana tourism. They just weren’t sure if it would be good or bad for the state if it starts being associated as the place to go to get Rocky Mountain High. Will it earn the scorn of parents everywhere? Of course to say that the moratorium is being observed selectively is putting it mildly.

When I realized I was not going to get a call back I wrote Amber an email and told her I understood her dilemma. If the tourism board wished to put a moratorium on promoting pot tourism, then even a phone interview telling someone that fact could end up as an article that would, in effect, promote marijuana tourism. I told her I would just report that the office did not return calls and move on.

Then I did get an email message back promptly apologizing for not getting back to me and saying that “one of my colleagues” would get back to me shortly. Moments later I got the promised email from the colleague. It was an official statement, delivered in that most dry manner of official statements, saying that Colorado Tourism is not giving interviews because it is “impossible to forecast how the law may impact tourism.”

Impossible? From the belly of the beast is it not possible to see what is going on? It’s not very hidden from out here. Google “marijuana tourism” right now and you’ll come up with about 23,000 articles.

What is happening is, like the law legalizing marijuana itself, not under anyone’s control. What we are seeing, and what Colorado Tourism does not want to acknowledge, is a new tourism boom.

When alcohol prohibition was abolished, there were some canny investors, like Joseph Kennedy, who were ready and waiting for the day of legalization and thereby made millions from it. There will be those who make it big from this legalization as well. It’s an opportunity that comes along only once in a great while. Some of those who go for the gold will strike it. He who hesitates is … going to watch it all go by.

Colorado will not have this edge for long. Washington State will be the next to have legal recreational marijuana. Enough signatures were gathered in Alaska to put an initiative on the ballot to legalize it in Alaska, so that already wild and woolly frontier may just become a little wilder. Oregon is expected to legalize pot in 2014. California and five other states are expected to go that way in 2016,

When Colorado officials say it is “impossible to forecast,” I wonder if they are being just a little coy. The boom is gathering steam and though it may not be possible to forecast all the possible implications, there is little doubt that the legalization of marijuana is creating its own niche travel boom. How substantial is not yet known, but that it will be substantial can be easily observed.

I’m not critical of the reluctant tourism officials for their reluctance. I understand their dilemma. To be fair, I’ve gotten exactly the same total lack of response from the tour operator industry segment as well. No one is talking.

It is, after all, an unprecedented situation. Something that has been criminal for 77 years is suddenly okay. Just across state lines it is still criminal. The feds and local authorities nationally are still putting people in prison for using marijuana, making arrests at a rate of roughly one every 42 seconds, according to US News.

The dilemma of Colorado Tourism reflects a deeper duality in the culture at large. Even after the legalization passed in November 2012, pot arrests continued briskly in Colorado in 2013, with more than 1,000 arrests of people with less than two ounces of weed. One might use the term “schizophrenic” to describe the American attitude toward pot. But that’s a deeper subject than we are able to go into here.

Meanwhile on the practical level, legal marijuana is estimated to be a $1.43 billion industry already and is expected to grow to $2.34 billion this year. And Wall Street is taking notice, as an op-ed in Barron’s favoring legalization makes clear.

Polls show a majority of Americans favor legalization. Besides Colorado and Washington that have legalized marijuana, 16 states have decriminalized it (no prison time or criminal record for first-time possession of a small amount). And 20 states have legalized medical marijuana.

The old maxim is perhaps truer than ever:  money talks. We are talking a huge industry, and while most hang back, the industry is moving ahead full force in Colorado and elsewhere. Follow the money.

As in nearly every other arena, the flow of money will determine the outcome. When the business community decided the Vietnamese War was no longer worth waging, it ended. The same will happen with marijuana prohibition. It will wither and die. It will go back to what it was like before it was made illegal in 1937.

Louis Armstrong wrote, “The days when I first found out about gage [marijuana] – there weren’t any law against it. New York weren’t up on it when I first went there. Of course I wasn’t either at the time. I probably wouldn’t have paid attention to it either. But musicians coming every night to this swell night club where I was playing – and although they had just finished their jobs, they still looked fresh – neat and very much contented.

"And they would really enjoy my trumpet playing with the highest enthusiasm that any human being could do for another. I just came up from the South. I was just thrilled with the closeness and warmth of these great musicians, performers, etc.

"In fact, it gave me such a lift until the leader could see the beam all over my face when it was time for us to play a dance tune or play for the show. And we had a real big show… “

Meanwhile, there is a fortune to be made.

Follow me on Twitter @CogswellTravelP.