Fires may close some tourist-dependent businesses, banker warns

MESA VERDE NATIONAL PARK, Colo. - Mesa Verde National Park hopes to reopen next week, but some local businesses will not survive the loss of three critical weeks of tourism to wildfires this summer, a banker warns.

The latest blaze was reported 90 percent contained Friday after burning 5,240 acres, including 1,352 acres in the park, with full containment expected by day's end. Fires have charred nearly 29,000 acres at Mesa Verde so far this summer, closing it for two weeks in July and a week so far this month.

The fire, which at its height threatened ancient cliff dwellings and other archaeological sites, did not damage any of those sites. Some recreational facilities at Wetherill Mesa were destroyed, and some historic structures burned on the Ute Mountain Ute Indian Reservation.

The loss of tourism due to the fires may kill some area businesses.

Occupancy rates are off as much as 80 percent at area motels, while business is down about 20 percent at gas stations, 50 percent at restaurants and 75 percent at souvenir shops and galleries, said Lynn Dyer, Montezuma County tourism director.

''There will very likely be businesses (that) fail because of these fires, and other businesses will suffer,'' said Slim McWilliams, president of Citizens State Bank of Cortez.

''Remember, this will trickle down through the whole economy. A motel-owner won't add on new rooms or buy a new car.''

While Mesa Verde turned tourists away, visitor numbers nearly tripled at Hovenweep National Monument west of Cortez, which has five ancestral Pueblo sites, and the Anasazi Heritage Center, a museum of ancestral Pueblo culture in nearby Dolores.

Free bus tours resumed Wednesday from Cortez, outside Mesa Verde, to Hovenweep so tourists will have a reason to stay in the area, said Ann Chambers, executive director of the Cortez Cultural Center. The tours began during the earlier fire.

Fall colors draw sightseers, and park Superintendent Larry Wiese said the park might remain open past its normal closing date after Labor Day.

McWilliams was less optimistic about a resurgence of tourists, even in summer 2001.

''The number of people coming in because it burned is fewer than the number of people who would have come if it had never burned,'' he said. ''Economically, this summer can have significant impacts that will carry forward for many years.''


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