The fires are gone, but where are the tourists?
Towns like Sedona, Ariz., struggle to lure visitors. Dave Watters has cabins available.
SEDONA, ARIZ. — The fire-danger warning has been downgraded from "extreme" to "high." National and state forests have reopened, albeit with prohibitions against lighting campfires or smoking cigarettes.
Clouds, an unseen vision for months, appear in the sky almost every day now to mark the start of the annual rainy season.
After unprecedented forest closures amid one of the worst droughts on record, this northern Arizona region famed for its spectacular red rock formations is once again open for business.
Yet few seem to have noticed. Merchants in this and other tourism-dependent cities across parts of the West say fire fears have burned holes in their pockets. To them, the summer of 2002 is already all but over.
It's too soon to calculate the hit yet, because statewide hotel occupancy figures are only available through May (they were already down 3.2 percent in Arizona and 4.2 percent in Colorado by then, show data from Smith Travel Research). But Sedona hoteliers, who greet 4 million visitors a year and raise more than $1.3 million in room taxes for the city, are troubled.
"We basically lost prime time," says Dave Watters, owner of Don Hoel's Cabin, a Sedona resort with 40 percent midweek occupancy rates at a time of year when 90 percent is more common. "Schools start up again in the middle or the end of August, and now is when people are doing their summer travel. Even with the forest opening back up, most people have already made their plans...." Sedona, whose summer attractions depend on access to the outdoors, saw not just the shutdown of the 1.8 million-acre Coconino National Forest, but also of Arizona's most popular state park, Slide Rock. With swimming allowed in the picturesque Oak Creek, Slide Rock is a huge midsummer draw for heat-weary Phoenix residents.
Perhaps even more significant, though, are the thousands of potential out-of-state visitors bypassing Arizona altogether, tourism officials say a product of the national media attention paid to the Rodeo-Chediski fire, which burned 468,000 acres 100 miles away from here.
In mountainous regions of Colorado, the story's much the same. Media fascination with the 137,000-acre Hayman fire outside Denver distorted the reality that the blaze affected a tiny part of the state. It didn't help matters much when Gov. Bill Owens, desperate to garner federal disaster-relief funds, declared in early June: "All of Colorado is burning."
Still, it is true that all the state was at risk of burning, and precautions were taken hundreds of miles from the Hayman inferno. Particularly impacted was the state's southwest corner, where a popular ride on a quaint coal-fired locomotive through pristine wilderness shut down from June 20 to July 12. The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad typically greets 6,000 visitors a day.
Yet the train company halted service out of fear that cinders from the engine could ignite surrounding trees. Losses are estimates at $3.5 million in fares and gift-shop revenue. "It's a real trickledown effect, because if people can't ride our train, they don't stay in hotels, they don't experience our shopping, they don't eat in our restaurants," spokeswoman Mary Jo Rakowski says.
Those hurt by the closures acknowledge it had to be done. After all, many Sedona business owners have watched the town's popularity lead to an influx of visitors whose careless fire habits could easily lead to devastation.
The closures "were the right thing to do, because maybe you're not making as much money as you would, but if this place burns down, then nobody makes any money," says Shelly Kidwell, whose extended family has interests in a sandwich stand, an Indian jewelry shop, an orchard, and a lodge.
Still, some were frustrated by the restrictions imposed by government fiat. Five youth camps that use public forests about 40 miles west of Sedona were forced to cancel seasons when the forests were closed, says Campfire Arizona president and CEO Vikki Scarafiotti. The camps' first-ever closure resulted in the loss of at least $1 million in revenue, as well as many summer jobs for college students.
"We've been good stewards of the land, and we would have liked the opportunity to dialogue about our ability to manage the fire risk," says Ms. Scarafiotti, who notes that camps on private lands were allowed to proceed.
State tourism agencies, which exist to promote travel, are trying to put an optimistic spin on a woeful year. Arizona's Department of Tourism, for instance, is spending $50,000 on in-state advertising telling Arizonans that Sedona and the rest of the north is now open.
Both Arizona and Colorado are also planning to publicize nonforest activities. That's a good idea, say locals, because there's no telling if the incessant drought will ruin next summer, too.
"There's a lot to do here, and we have to get the word out about all the wonderful things we have," says Char Beltran, president of the Chamber of Commerce in Sedona.