- Associated Press - Sunday, May 25, 2014

CANON CITY, Colo. (AP) - It was windy on June 11. Gusts up to 50 mph were whipping a wildfire on the south rim of the Royal Gorge, but Royal Gorge Bridge & Park manager Mike Bandera wasn’t too worried.

He was listening to radio chatter from firefighters.

“They said there’s no way the fire would jump the gorge,” he said. “Wasn’t going to happen.”

But those winds hurled burning piñon, sage and juniper embers 1,600 feet across the chasm. In 20 minutes, 48 of the 52 buildings in the 85-year-old park were burned to ashes.

It was a devastating blow, not just to the Royal Gorge Company, which has leased the park from Cañon City since 1947, but to the entire Fremont County region, which leans heavily on the bridge and park as its top tourist draw.

The tourist season ended before it really began, crushing hopes for a recovery after the previous summer’s wildfire season and drought-parched river flows. After two harsh summer seasons, worsened by the economic malaise that has haunted the country’s tourism industry for several years, Cañon City is facing a season without its top attraction.

The Royal Gorge Bridge & Park is a hive of construction - the owners who lease the park from the city are spending more than $25 million in a frenzied project that will upgrade the dated facility - but it won’t open until mid-August.

Still, Colorado’s tourism business owners are an optimistic lot, and Cañon City sees a golden summer on the horizon as Fremont County draws wean themselves from traffic guaranteed by the lure of crossing the world’s highest suspension bridge.

It’s not a blind optimism, either.

Across the state, tourist spending is climbing, with resort destinations showing record sales tax revenues for the 2013-14 winter. Last summer nearly every tourist-dependent town in the state saw record visitor spending. Ample snowfall has swollen the Arkansas River Basin to 117 percent of its longtime median, thrilling outfitters on the country’s most rafted river, which has seen its rubber-riding visitor count decline to 179,000 last year from 208,000 in 2011.

And that snow has dampened wildfire fears, as has the state’s increased firefighting budget and the Forest Service’s strengthened fleet of firefighting air tankers.

“Every outfitter on this river deserves to have an outstanding year,” said Andy Neinas, who hopes his Echo Canyon River Expeditions, just outside the Royal Gorge Bridge & Park, will draw 25,000 visitors this summer.

“That’s doable,” he said, displaying that fervent glass-half-full perspective.

Group traffic is returning. Neinas, who was down 20 percent last summer, already has hosted corporate retreats on the river. Late snowstorms in May built a snowpack that could deliver solid flows throughout the season. Early season traffic and early bookings are up. Cañon City has sent out a record number of visitor guides. Gas prices are low - good news for travelers.

“All these things will all make a difference. This year we have the recipe for success,” said Neinas, who helped found the Fremont County Tourism Council and serves on the board of the Pikes Peak Country Attractions group that promotes tourism in the Colorado Springs region.

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