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Marijuana Tourists: Are More Flocking to Washington and Colorado?

Unofficial Counterculture Marijuana Holiday Celebrated

An attendee wears a "420" necklace at Hempfest on April 20 in Seattle, Washington. Seattle Hempfest is an annual event for the purpose of educating the public about the benefits of marijuana and advocating for its decriminalization. Meg Roussos / Getty Images file

Are more tourists headed to Washington and Colorado to enjoy a legal toke? The answer’s hazy.

Seattle on Friday will host its annual Hempfest — a pot-a-palooza weekend known to attract a quarter million people — yet city officials say legal weed in Washington has yet to lure sightseers across state borders.

In the Mile High City, some 30,000 people crammed an open-air expo during 4/20 weekend to sample strains vying for the 2014 Cannabis Cup. But Denver officials maintain there’s no proof that legal pot in Colorado is enticing visitors from other states.

To the civic-hawking pros charged with charming far-flung consumers to enjoy the best of Washington and Colorado, marijuana tourism remains a myth.

Duly noted. But according to experts at travel websites that track the habits of American vacationers, the two states where voters approved recreational pot each have witnessed an uptick in curious journeyers since those laws were enacted.

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“We've seen that searches for both destinations have spiked dramatically,” said Taylor Cole, who handles public relations for Hotels.com North America.

Year-over-year, there was a 73 percent traffic increase at Hotels.com among shoppers hunting for Denver rooms during the 4/20 festivities — and a 68 percent bump among travelers scouting for Seattle rooms during July, the first month of legal weed sales there, the site reports.

At Hopper.com, an airfare comparison site, there’s been a 10 percent rise in the “interest” among users checking out flights to Spokane, Washington, for September to November of this year when compared to the same months during 2013. There's been a corresponding 3 percent hike for Seattle during the same time frame, said Virginia Nicholson, a data analyst with the site.

So, assuming there is a layer of reality to the concept of marijuana tourism, which state is winning over more weed travelers?

There is an early victor.

“Our search data does show that Denver and Colorado have seen more significant search increases in the first seven months of the year,” said Cole of Hotels.com.

From Jan. 1 — when legal weed sales began in Colorado — to July 31, year-over-year room searches at Hotels.com were up by 37 percent for Denver and by 17 percent for all Colorado, reports Hotels.com.

In Washington, where medical marijuana has been sold throughout 2014 — and where recreational pot fans awaited the July 1 dawn of that new law — year-over-year room searches were up by 29 percent for Seattle and by 11 percent for all of Washington through the first seven months, reports Hotels.com.

At Hopper.com, a similar Colorado-favoring trend has been noted.

While autumn-timed flight searches at Hopper.com are edging higher this year for Seattle and Tacoma, those numbers pale when compared to folks who have booked or are planning 2014 Denver trips — a 20 percent year-over-year jump since Jan. 1, according to Nicholson’s analysis.

“Marijuana tourism is not as strong in Washington state,” Hopper.com reports, adding: “Travelers have not been flocking to Seattle the way they did to Denver.”

And Colorado’s edge is likely not fueled by the state’s six-month head start on recreational pot.

Washington has suffered a more sluggish pot-tourism launch “due to the threat of a recreational weed shortage,” as only 79 dispensaries of the more than 2,600 that applied for licenses in that state were approved to start growing, Nicholson said.

What's more, tougher controls on advertising and public displays, and "limited supplies at very high prices," may reduce legal pot shops in Seattle to "a tourist novelty," the New York Times opined Aug. 2.

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Let that debate rage. But entrepreneurs in both states are trying to court any marijuana-minded travelers.

In Seattle, Canna Bus touts itself as a “rolling sanctuary,” hauling visitors to “the epicenter of Seattle’s exploding cannabis culture.” That includes a stop at a recreational marijuana store “after which you can enjoy your purchases … during a sight-seeing tour of the Emerald City.” Tickets are $50.

In Denver, So Mile High offers “marijuana expeditions” to dispensaries, glass shops and live growing operations. The site also suggests the “Top 3 Munchie Destinations” in town and “the best marijuana friendly” bed-and-breakfast.

Still, tourism officials in both markets remain unconvinced that legal toking is sucking in out-of-staters.

“We’re not Amsterdam.”

“It’s interesting to me, we’ve had fairly low amounts of consumer interest through our visitor information channels, our visitor centers and phones, even as retail sales opened here last month,” said David Blandford, spokesman for Visit Seattle.

Deborah Park, spokeswoman for Visit Denver, told NBC News in April: “We’re not Amsterdam.” She stands by those words.

“We still don’t have any numbers that support that marijuana tourism exists,” Park said Friday. “When people come into the city, they will go to a recreational marijuana location. But it’s like shopping — one of those things they do while they’re here. They’re not making their trip around it.”

A leading marijuana advocate asserts that in Colorado, where Gov. John Hickenlooper opposed recreational pot, tourism officials are simply voicing the party line.

“I believe (Park’s) remarks are more wishful thinking than reality,” said David Rheins, CEO of the Seattle-based Marijuana Business Association, considered the cannabis industry’s chamber of commerce. “Colorado has enjoyed huge sales of recreational marijuana, driven in large part by out of state tourists. While they may not have many places to legally smoke out — you can’t consume on the street, in cabs, parks or most hotel rooms — but apparently they are finding a way.

“I do believe,” he added, “that Washington will embrace pot tourism, and that you will see more travel agencies, hotels and events come online.”