When most people think of tourism in Colorado, they envision making turns on snow-capped mountains, riding the rapids on the Colorado River, hiking to a Hidden Gem, basking in the calming waters of hot springs, biking a single track in wine country, surfing the Great Sand Dunes, and touring breweries.

What people don’t usually think about is the less well-known tourism throughout this beautiful state ... even the locals that live in the areas that host these understated assets don’t think there are viable resources in their own backyards.

There is a stereotypical mentality that if you’re not fortunate enough to live in these high-tourism areas, then you’re not really a member of the blessed population residing in Colorado. Rather, we’re poor, unfortunate souls, stuck in the forgotten outliers of the state. This is a mentality shared equally by those traveling into our state on their vacations and by natives; and we are doing ourselves a great disservice by passively allowing these rumors to run rampant.

Southeast Colorado is one of the last “frontiers,” and there are some who would like to see our rural corner of the state simply disappear into a faint memory, silenced by our weakened state. The unfortunate thing is that our economy is stressed; we are continuing to lose our population; and we are pretty far down on the prospectors' list for new businesses. We are in desperate need of infusions into our economy, and to achieve that we all are going to have to start thinking outside the box.

In past articles, I’ve spoken about the importance of diversity in an economy. It is imperative for a healthy, active, vibrant, and growing economy. In efforts to create diversity, of course, I’m trying to recruit new business; of course, I’m working to retain major employers in the area; and, of course, I’m striving to create new job opportunities for our communities. But that’s not enough. I’d like to propose that there are assets held by Bent County that simply aare not marketed well, and that marketing these assets with strategy and purpose could open the door to new economic growth through tourism.

Tourism often gains a bad reputation, as locals are turned off to the constant intrusion on their daily lives ... I know because I lived in a tourism mecca for 10 years. I enjoyed the “ski-bum” life for a while, and I experienced first-hand what it’s like to work in the tourism industry — the good, the bad, and the underwhelming. Tourism is also sometimes not considered a “legitimate” option in rural areas because (I believe) as stated before, we don’t consider that what we have qualifies as tourism.

What needs to be reconsidered is the fact that tourism has the power to drive economies. Why do you think there are areas in this state that are funded almost entirely by tourism dollars? Some quick facts for you: 85.2 million travelers visited Colorado in 2018, totaling over $22 million in spending, and more than 174,000 people were employed in this industry. Of these statistics, only 17% of these figures were obtained in areas outside of the Denver Metro, Pikes Peak, and mountain resort regions of the state. In Bent County, there was $3.2 million in travel spending, 41 jobs created, and more than $200,000 made in tax revenue.

Though we may not have the traditional tourist attractions that most people associate with Colorado, we do have our own unique tourist attractions, places and activities that are just as viable as anything else experienced in this great state. And just because we aren’t located in a stereotype-defined area doesn’t mean that our resources can’t be marketed just as effectively and enthusiastically. We should be taking a lesson from our neighbors in how they market, simply adapting what product is being pushed. The statistics stated before show that there is potential for tourism in Bent County, but I believe that more can and should be done here and regionally.

Let’s take a look at what we should be promoting:

We have John Martin Reservoir, Boggsville, Fort Lyon, disc golf, the Santa Fe Trail, the John W. Rawlings Heritage Center, and what’s commonly referred to as the best birding regions in the country.

Regionally, we can add Bent’s Fort, the Sand Creek Massacre, Camp Amache, the Dinosaur Tracks, the Comanche National Grasslands, the Koshare Indian Kiva, Lake Meredith, the great tarantula migration, hunting and fishing, long-running county fairs … and the list goes on. What’s inspiring, is that the potential for the expansion of these resources as tourist attractions is pretty much untapped and endless.

Now, even though I’m extremely optimistic about the potential for tourism in Bent County and Southeast Colorado as a whole, there are some realities that must be addressed. If our resources are to be realized and appreciated in the manner that they deserve to be, then we have to work as a community to promote what we have, and what so many of us are proud of.

We have to be good stewards of our own communities, and we also have to be ambassadors to travelers passing through (i.e. if you see someone from out of state at a gas station, chat them up, be kind, and tell them where our local attractions are). Another reality is that we must start taking pride in the way our communities look. We need to start coming up with solutions to create aesthetically pleasing infrastructure and improve existing amenities (parks, hotels, transportation, etc.). We cannot expect people to travel to our communities, stay overnight, and spend their money if they don’t see our community as welcoming and inviting.

Let’s start making the effort as a community to formulate these solutions.