DENVER — A little more than a year after Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper insisted his wildfire-ravaged state was still "open for business," he may have to throw another lifeline to the state's billion-dollar tourism industry as the world takes in the startling images of dramatic flood rescues and washed-out roads.
The flooding has struck at the very mountains that give the state its identity and attract millions of hikers, campers and skiers. Months and possibly years of painstaking, expensive repairs lie ahead, but Colorado officials must also deal with a second problem— the risk that catastrophic damage could keep tourists away, even from places that are unharmed.
Some tourism operators want to see a media campaign to counter the photos of raging rivers and towns ruined by muddy floodwaters.
David Leinweber owns Angler's Covey in Colorado Springs, which caters to fly fishermen seeking prime trout. He said the images on television and social media make it look as if this year's fishing season is finished.
"Our out-of-state business is down 15 percent. People don't realize that we still have 9,000 miles of fishable water and 2,000 lakes in Colorado that aren't affected," he said. "And they won't know unless we tell them."
Thousands of tourists flock to the Front Range this time of year to visit Rocky Mountain National Park. Some come for elk mating season, when the animals clash with their horns and make bugle-like calls. Other visitors drive the Peak to Peak Highway in the foothills west of Boulder to see fall colors.
But right now the national park and its eastern gateway, the town of Estes Park, are off-limits.
Eastern approaches to both places are cut off, and many Estes Park residents are still in salvage-and-recovery mode. The town hopes it can welcome visitors in about a month, once some initial fixes are made and a smaller access road is repaired. One of the main access roads, through Big Thompson Canyon, took several years to repair after a 1976 flood that killed more than 140 people.
"We need a little time to get back on our feet and then, as soon as possible, want people to come," town spokeswoman Kate Rusch said.
The extent of damage to the park, visited by 3.2 million people last year, still isn't known. Trail Ridge Road, which normally carries tourist marveling at the sweeping views above the treeline, is now a supply route for trucks going to Estes Park.
The park could reopen in stages but when depends on those access roads being repaired.
"It's something that we don't have any control over. We'll deal with it the best we can," park spokeswoman Kyle Patterson said.
Lily Brown, manager of the Briar Rose Bed & Breakfast in Boulder, said dozens of people canceled reservations on Thursday and Friday after they saw water from Boulder Creek running rampant through the center of town. She said her establishment only got a little water in the basement, and customers are only gradually coming back.
She hopes the lost business returns when the water recedes, but so far, there is no end in sight.
The good news is that skiing, the highest-profile part of Colorado's $16.7 billion tourism industry — the state's second biggest — hasn't been affected. Most of the resorts are farther to the west.
Colorado is about to launch a national media campaign promoting itself as a ski destination. It was planned before the flooding started. The state doesn't have the budget to do advertising to respond to emergencies, but it does plan to use social media to get the word out about places people can still visit, as it did after the wildfires, tourism director Al White said.
That's an approach that helped Vermont tourism recover after Tropical Storm Irene two years ago. Residents and small business owners began promoting the slogan "I am Vermont Strong" on social media to show that the state was open for business, and state government officials joined in, too. Spending on dining and lodging increased in the month following the storm, a bounce credited to that campaign, said Jen Butson, a spokeswoman for the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing.
That doesn't tell the whole story, especially for business directly affected by the flooding. The diner that served as the social center of Wilmington, the village near the Killington ski resort, just recently reopened, Butson said.
Leinweber said state officials learned valuable lessons from the wildfires about how to organize emergency response teams, quickly set up shelters and map out rescue plans. Tourism interests need their own emergency plan.
"If state officials can have a quick-response team, why can't tourism officials have something ready to go?" he asked. "It's not like this is the first time something like this has happened."