From The Pueblo Chieftain (Tracy Harmon):
Arkansas River rafting companies are expecting another busy spring and summer as turnout continues to rebound from the Great Recession and the damaging 2012 and 2013 wildfire seasons.
Last year, commercial rafters provided trips to 196,998 thrill seekers, the fourth straight year of increased ridership on the state’s most rafted river, according to recently released Colorado River Outfitters Association statistics for the 2015 season.
The overall economic impact of last year’s Arkansas River rafting season was estimated at $62 million, including $24.4 million on direct spending on rafting and $37.6 million on lodging, gas and food and other related expenses, the industry group said.
Among the factors that contributed to the busier season was the late spring snowpack that grew to above average levels and created a high water season for most of Colorado.
Also, no major wildfires broke out, which contributed to stable use patterns, said Joe Greiner, who compiles the use report for the Colorado River Outfitters Association.
“Part of the increase use on the Arkansas River is due to recovery from the Royal Gorge fire that burned much of the infrastructure of the Royal Gorge Bridge & Park in 2013. The park was open the entire 2015 season, contributing to solid increases in rafting use,” Greiner said.
This year’s rafting season begins with “a lot of positive elements” that point to another great year for outfitters, Greiner said.
“I think everything is now in line. The Royal Gorge Bridge has been reopened a full year. The Brown’s Canyon National Monument has now been designated for a year and is starting to show up in guidebooks and on state maps. Plus the snowpack is perfect,” Greiner said.
Snowpack levels are a little above normal, which is right where rafting outfitters like to see them: not so high that they cause flooding and not so low that the river is flat.
“We should have excellent flows all the way through the summer,” he said.
Other favorable indicators are a more stable stock market and increased housing prices, factors that help people feel they have more money to spend on vacation.
“The gas prices are certainly affordable, too. Our bookings are now a little bit up, but we are finding that as people get more and more comfortable with computer booking, there are more last minute bookers,” Greiner explained.
A new music festival set for early August in Buena Vista, the Vertex Music Fest, should lead to more rafting business with 20,000 people expected to visit the region..
“So all the elements are there for an awesome season,” Greiner said.
The face of rafting is changing as the number of rafting companies diminishes — “very slowly,” Greiner said — and may eventually dwindle down to 25 outfitters.
“In the early ’80s, when I started (his company, Wilderness Aware Rafting), there were over 80 companies and today we have 47 permit holders. I would say 25 is about the most any river in the country has and through attrition we should get there,” he said.
The Arkansas River remains the most rafted in Colorado with a statewide market share of 39 percent last year.
The river’s biggest year ever was 2001 when 252,213 boaters floated its waters.