Legal Pot

We’re Not Amsterdam’: Is Marijuana Tourism in Colorado a Myth?

Image: Members of a crowd numbering tens of thousands smoke marijuana and listen to live music, at the Denver 420 pro-marijuana rally in 2013.

Members of a crowd numbering tens of thousands smoke marijuana and listen to live music, at the Denver 420 pro-marijuana rally at Civic Center Park in Denver on Saturday, April 20, 2013. Even before the passage in November 2012 of Colorado Amendment 64 promised the legalization of marijuana for recreational use, April 20th has for years been a celebration of marijuana counterculture, and the 2013 Denver rally draw larger crowds than previous years. AP file

America’s most mammoth party this weekend may well be Denver’s 420 rally on Sunday, but Colorado’s legal pot law, so far, has not lured a sustained surge of out-of-state weed lovers, say trade advocates for the state’s hotels and restaurants.

“Marijuana tourism,” as some media members have dubbed it, may prove to be an urban myth or just an overblown concept, experts assert.

“We’re not Amsterdam,” said Deborah Park, spokeswoman for Visit Denver, the city’s tourism office. “This law was (passed) because the people who live here wanted it for their own use. The thought process behind the law wasn’t really for tourists.

“So that’s our question: Where is this marijuana tourism?” Park added. “In Denver, you can’t smoke in public. You can’t smoke in a hotel. You can’t smoke in parks. We don't have cafes. So there’s just not a location for anyone who’s coming in for that as tourists.”

But that on-the-ground reality has not curbed some outsiders or some locals from maintaining that weed is indeed feeding the Mile High City's tourism machine.

That rhetoric reached new volume ahead of Denver’s annual 420 festival –- previously held to generate support for marijuana legalization but billed this year as “a celebration of legal status for its use in Colorado.”, a room-booking site, reports Denver is likely to see a deluge of 420-minded visitors based on a 73 percent spike in online hotel searches for stays April 18-20 this year as compared to similar searches conducted at the site for those dates last year.

Searches for Denver hotels also were 25 percent higher during the first three months of 2014 as compared to the first three months of 2013, according to

“The search increase could be attributed to a number of factors, but the data does suggest that more people are planning to visit Denver this coming weekend due to the number of festivities and events that are planned,” said Taylor Cole, who handles public relations for North America.

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In Denver, FOX affiliate KDVR cited those metrics, reporting on its website: “The evidence is anecdotal, but strong: Legal pot seems to be attracting tourists’ attention to the Centennial State, especially during the 4/20 weekend.”

For that event, held at Civic Center park downtown, organizers say they are anticipating huge crowds although Denver officials have mandated that rally leaders broadcast to all attendees that marijuana consumption at the site is illegal.

“We’re estimating about 80,000 people per day,” said top organizer Miguel Lopez, adding that based on internal “polling” and Facebook posts, the expected composition of that throng will be “10 percent foreign, 40 percent out of state, and 50 percent in state.”

To Lopez, marijuana tourism is entirely real.

“Absolutely -– if you look at how filled the hotel rooms are this weekend, and they’re pretty full,” Lopez said. “Whether or not the tourism industry wants to acknowledge it or not, that’s what they look at and that’s what we’re looking at. People are having a hard time findings rooms this weekend.”

Two hotels Lopez cited as being “sold out” included the Comfort Inn Downtown and the Sheraton Downtown Denver Hotel.

But both hotels still have rooms –- at least 10 remained available at each Thursday, the businesses told NBC News.

Visit Denver spokeswoman Park checked as well on occupancy rates this weekend: “I wanted to see if our hotels were completely booked. They're not at all. You can get a room anywhere downtown at this point.”

In total, Denver offers 44,000 hotel rooms.

Further, Denver has hosted a series of large conventions this year, gathering dermatologists, physicists, and storm chasers, among others. Those gatherings plus a healthy, late-running ski season and two Denver Broncos playoff games in January are likely fueling much of the online hotel searching, Park said.

Restaurants across Colorado similarly are not reporting noticeable bumps in patrons that can be attributed to marijuana-seeking visitors, said Pete Meersman, president and CEO of the Colorado Restaurant Association.

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“Until someone does an actual survey on ‘marijuana tourism,’ we won't know what effect it has had, or hasn't had,” Meersman said. “I believe we may gain some ‘marijuana tourists,’ or people coming to our state to buy marijuana, but we may also lose tourists and business groups who don't want to expose their entourage to marijuana in Colorado.”

One Colorado tourist attraction is aiming to seize the 420 moment -– albeit in a split-personality fashion that might make some heads spin. On Sunday at dawn, Red Rocks Amphitheater just west of Denver will host its annual Easter sunrise service. The event usually draws some “regional tourists,” Park said.

Sunday night, the same outdoor venue holds a concert featuring Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifa, billing it as “the first ever Snoop’s Wellness Retreat,” and inviting fans to “turn up your zen.” The concert is sold out.

Will Lopez have time to breakaway from the 420 festival to catch the show?

“I haven’t been invited,” he said. “Do you know anybody with tickets?”