Some 82.4 million travelers visited Colorado in 2016, two years after the state became the first to legalize marijuana. Colorado Tourism conducted a survey in 2016 that found 15 percent of those visitors (about 12 million) participated in a marijuana-related activity, and 5 percent reported it as a motivation for their trip.
That number of pot loving tourists for 2016 in Colorado is more than most U.S. states’ — and many countries’ — annual visitor totals.
Colorado’s experience underscores just how much pot is a growing sector of the travel industry, as more U.S. states and countries legalize marijuana. Whether it’s visiting a dispensary, taking a cannabis tour, or kicking back at a pot lounge or coffee shop, weed is a big draw.
Still, many companies and organizations have yet to embrace pot tourism due to the legal uncertainties and sensitivities around the issue.
The U.S. Department of Justice said earlier this year that it’s considering challenging some state marijuana legalization laws. But U.S. Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado said on Friday that President Donald Trump is backing down from potential challenges, according to Politico.
Denver, Colorado, is a particular hotbed for pot tourism. Earlier this month, the city asked cannabis tour operators to apply for a designated consumption area license.
Some tour operators like CannabisTours.com, a Denver-based company founded in January, 2014, that has expanded to Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Boston, and Washington, D.C. where pot has been legalized, said the new license is the latest example of a crackdown on pot tourism, said Mike Eymer, CEO and founder of CannabisTours.com. Eymer also founded and runs Colorado Cannabis Tours.
Eymer said he learned of the license last week, which was voted on last year and would require small businesses to obtain a license to consume cannabis in public places. “It requires you to have a brick and mortar building for where the consumption occurs,” said Eymer. “Could you imagine a city cannabis tour where you smoke weed in a brick building, and then get on a bus and you’re not allowed to smoke anything?”
“We are fought, ignored, and treated like a red-headed stepchild,” said Eymer. “My competitors and my company have become Denver’s largest tourist attractions but we are forced to defend ourselves and comply with regulations that simply wouldn’t fit our business models.”
“We help fund these organizations through taxes,” Eymer added.
Interest has increased for pot tourism in Colorado. When the tourism board asked visitors if they had visited a pot dispensary in 2015 (the 2016 question gave multiple options for marijuana activities), 11 percent of visitors said they visited a dispensary, and 4 percent said it was a motivation for their trip.
Many destinations haven’t started to track the economic impact of pot tourism, but Colorado’s overall marijuana industry was about $2.4 billion in 2015, the most recent year data is available, according to Colorado-based Marijuana Policy Group, which analyzes the economic impact of marijuana legalization.
“We are a 109-year-old destination marketing organization tasked with promoting Denver to convention and leisure travelers around the world whereas the recreational marijuana industry has been in existence legally in Colorado for just over four years and is still evolving,” said Richard Scharf, president and CEO of Visit Denver.
Colorado Tourism said state law prevents them from advertising to out-of-state tourists who live in areas where pot is illegal, said Cathy Ritter, director of Colorado Tourism Office.
The tourism board has no plans to promote pot tourism, said Ritter. Although its website links to a Colorado government site that gives marijuana health and safety information but doesn’t have tourism information.
“To advertise on the internet, retail marijuana establishments must have reliable evidence that no more than 30 percent of the audience is expected to be under the age of 21,” said Ritter.
“The Colorado Tourism Office does not have sufficient evidence about the age of its website users, hence we would possibly be aiding retail marijuana establishments in violating this regulation,” said Ritter.
Tripadvisor Sidesteps Cannabis tours and activities
TripAdvisor, one of the world’s largest trip-planning platforms which millions of travelers use to plan trips, doesn’t feature many cannabis tours and activities or these tours don’t have prominent placement in search results.
TripAdvisor did not respond to Skift’s request for comment.
Green Star Excursions is one of the only cannabis tour operators with a page on TripAdvisor. Eymer said TripAdvisor used to include cannabis tours and activities on its sites but changed its internal policy to remove many cannabis related pages.
“We used to have a listing on TripAdvisor but they didn’t want to get involved in that market,” said Eymer. “That also applies to Viator. We also had listed on Viator but those were taken down.”
A quick Viator search for cannabis tours yielded about 20 results, but mostly for tours and activities in Amsterdam.
Eymer and other cannabis tour operators invest in social media and rely on word of mouth to promote their tours. Like Colorado Tourism, Eymer said he can’t do digital advertising. “We’re very easy to find,” he said. “We can’t pay for Google advertising but we can be the best resource for cannabis tourism that people are looking for.”
Promoting Pot Tourism
In the United States, nine states and Washington, D.C. have legalized marijuana as of 2018. Nine countries including Chile, South Africa, and Spain have partially or fully legalized the drug and about two-dozen others have decriminalized it.
Many other destinations have legalized medical marijuana.
The Netherlands became the first country to partially legalize marijuana in 1976, and the Dutch parliament voted last year to legalize marijuana cultivation.
The Netherlands also recently launched an experiment with 10 Dutch cities to sell state-owned marijuana in coffee shops, meant to tackle the dark side of the marijuana supply.
But Amsterdam hasn’t joined yet, said Sebastiaan Meijer, a spokesperson for the City of Amsterdam. “We’re in the middle of talks for how to make this work,” he said. “Amsterdam has been thinking about joining but I think it would only work if all coffee shops joined within one municipality. We have more than 160 coffee shops.”
Amsterdam hasn’t made it a policy to market pot tourism, but it doesn’t shy away from it, said Meijer. “People around the world have been marketing it themselves,” he said. “Increasingly Asian tourists are also aware of Amsterdam’s liberal pot policies.”
Meijer said the city surveyed visitors in 2016 about why they visited. “Some of those people say smoking pot is a reason to come but they combine it with visiting a museum,” he said.
Amsterdam isn’t concerned about other destinations legalizing pot and taking away visitor market share from the city, said Meijer. “We think tourism, in general, will be growing much faster than we thought and probably more than we need it to.”
Many destinations where pot has been legalized in recent years, such as Alaska, California, and Nevada are struggling with how to balance concerns from local politicians and residents with a potential multi-million dollar tourism sector.
Bethany Drysdale, a spokesperson for Travel Nevada, the state’s tourism board, compared pot to gaming in the state. “People don’t come to Nevada just for gaming anymore as gaming is now legal in many other states,” she said. “People won’t come here just for marijuana. Colorado is surrounded by states where it wasn’t legal and it made a lot of sense for them to capitalize on it.”
Nevada is currently surveying visitors about their recreational pot use while in the state. “If we’re surprised by what we find, we might have to incorporate that into our marketing,” said Drysdale. “But I don’t think we’ll change our marketing.”
Los Angeles, Anaheim, California, and Alaska tourism officials also said they don’t plan to promote pot tourism.
Canada is set to legalize marijuana in July, but Montreal doesn’t plan to promote pot tourism once proper infrastructure is in place. “There are still a number of unknowns,” said Andrée-Anne Pelletier, a spokesperson for Tourisme Montréal, the city’s tourism board. “Beyond that, we typically promote Montréal from a more holistic perspective.”