Effect of recreational pot on ski biz remains hazy

by Kristen Wyatt

AP

Colorado’s ski resorts are taking the offensive in ensuring the multi-billion-dollar-a-year industry isn’t hurt by recreational marijuana stores that are set to open at about the same time many families begin planning their winter vacations.

For some skiers and snowboarders, hitting the slopes with a joint or pipe tucked into a winter coat has long been commonplace. But with the stores set to open Jan. 1 near resorts across the state — and a handful of companies offering cannabis-themed ski trips — the future is a bit hazy. Will a pot tourism industry flourish or will families decide to go to resorts in states where marijuana is outlawed?

For an industry already worrying about global warming, avalanches or simply a bad snow season, the stakes are high.

Jennifer Rudolph of Colorado Ski Country USA, a trade association that represents 21 resorts in the state, says the ski industry generates about $3 billion in tourism revenue annually and Colorado had more than 11 million skier visits last year, more than any other state.

“We are being proactive in educating the public in what to expect when they come to Colorado to ski,” she said.

She added: “We’re getting the word out that we have a lot of things to offer guests, but smoking marijuana is not one of them. … We have so much to offer our guests that outweigh the legality of possession of marijuana.”

Rudolph says her organization is informing visitors through social media and its blog about the new pot laws, which were passed last year and legalize marijuana possession in small amounts for adults over 21, including out-of-state visitors. Some resorts also are addressing the issue with their respective towns and chambers of commerce.

Rudolph said she hasn’t heard of anyone deciding not to come to Colorado because of the new pot laws, and it’s too early to tell what resorts can expect to see after Jan. 1.

“That’s why we’re doing some education now to let people know what they can and can’t do,” she said. “The bottom line is guests should not expect to smoke marijuana in public at a ski resort.”

But that expectation may not be realized in the Colorado counties that are home to some of the state’s most popular resorts. In those counties, the measure to legalize pot passed by overwhelming margins.

Aspen’s home county approved the measure by margin of more than 3 to 1, and more than two-thirds of voters also approved marijuana in the home county of Colorado’s largest ski resort, Vail. A whopping eight in 10 voters in the home county of Telluride ski resort favored marijuana legalization.

It’s also relatively easy to smoke marijuana at resorts without getting caught. Wooded areas off some of Colorado’s slopes already are dotted with “smoke shacks,” old mining cabins that have been illicitly repurposed as places to use the drug out of the cold and wind.

Still, industry officials hope visitors will respect that it is still illegal to smoke marijuana in public and on federal land, where 90 percent of the state’s ski resorts are located. Anyone who is caught risks having their pass taken away.

Peter Johnson with Colorado Green Tours, a Denver-based travel agency that plans custom cannabis-themed tours to ski areas and other destinations, insists his company and contracted guides will respect those laws.

“It would certainly be done in private. We obey the law,” the 39-year-old entrepreneur said. “We don’t give people the opportunity to flout it.”

Johnson, who founded the company in March, said he is dealing with “a large backlog” of mostly out-of-staters who are interested in booking a cannabis-themed ski trip this winter. But he doesn’t think the new laws will change much of anything at resorts.

“I think most cannabis users are pretty considerate,” he said.

One other issue that put Colorado in the news this year aside from the new marijuana laws was flooding, but skiers don’t need to give that a second thought: No major resorts were affected.