Hotels, DMOs demur on pot tourism, while upstart businesses embrace it

To fully comprehend the chasm in attitudes about marijuana-related tourism that exists between pot advocates and the traditional travel industry, try driving the 65 miles between the Mojave Desert and Las Vegas.

On one end, the old and nearly empty mining town of Nipton, Calif., is being acquired by a fledgling company called American Green, which has its sights set on creating the country's first pot-themed resort town, complete with cannabis-infused water from a nearby aquifer.

"What we're looking for is potential," said Stephen Shearin, a consultant for PanPacific International and the general manager of the Nipton project. "It's clean, it's established, and it's on a main thoroughfare."

Don't expect similar enthusiasm up the road in Sin City, despite the fact that Nevada legalized recreational cannabis consumption this year.

"The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority has no plans to promote recreational marijuana use as a tourism attraction," said its spokesman, Jeremy Handel.

Within the past five years, eight states that include some major U.S. tourist destinations -- e.g., Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Denver and Boston -- have voted to legalize recreational marijuana use. Washington, D.C., has also joined that group.

The resulting momentum has nurtured a flourishing pot-tourism industry, offering visitors information about and access to everything from dispensaries and tours of pot farms to cannabis cooking classes and weed-friendly bed-and-breakfasts.

"Cannabis culture has been alive and well here for more than 20 years," said Michael Gordon, owner of Seattle-based Kush Tourism, which since its 2013 founding has branched out from its home state to either offer or list tours in five other states. "Every time a state [legalizes recreational pot], our resources are ready on the first day."

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In contrast, local travel bureaus and other traditional promoters rarely cite pot tourism as a potential draw. That's primarily because many are partially funded by the federal government, which still prohibits legal marijuana sales, but also because pot tourism conflicts with the corporate culture of many hotel chains.

Currently, hotels in Denver and Seattle, the U.S. cities with the longest history of being pot-friendly, for the most part do not promote rooms that can be used for cannabis smoking or even publicize whether they allow on-site consumption.

Visit California representatives did not respond to requests for comment about how the destination marketing organization (DMO) would deal with the potential promotion of recreational cannabis in the most populous U.S. state.

To be sure, some of that reticence derives from the perception that stoner culture often runs counter to the wholesome ideals associated with family travel.

In addition, said Emily Gant, a lawyer with the Seattle firm Garvey Schubert Barer, some of the reluctance of DMOs and larger travel companies to acknowledge pot tourism could stem from fear of the Trump administration. While the Obama administration took a somewhat lenient attitude toward states' decisions to legalize pot, Trump's attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has suggested that he will spur efforts to crack down on the industry. He has already pressured some pot-legal states to reconsider their stance.

Further complicating things are two other issues. First is the fact that cannabis remains illegal to consume in any public spaces in the U.S. Second, all cannabis sales must be transacted in cash, because banks won't work with the pot industry as a result of the federal prohibition.

"The bigger players with a national presence don't want to get stuck in the crosshairs," said Gant, whose firm specializes in serving cannabis-related companies. "It doesn't help that there's an administration that seems relatively averse to this industry."

Measuring the draw and the revenue generated by pot tourism is difficult. According to a study conducted in 2015 by Oregon's Travel Portland, that city's visitors' bureau, the number of potential tourists drawn by pot legalization was pretty much offset by potential visitors repelled by it.

That said, Travel Portland spokesman Marcus Hibdon said those results might be overly pessimistic because "the first wave" of pot-seeking visitors to the Pacific Northwest had likely already visited pot-legal Seattle 175 miles to the north by the time Oregon began allowing sales of recreational cannabis consumption in 2015.

Meanwhile, pot tourism's near invisibility within the traditional travel space masks a rapidly growing sector.

In Colorado and Washington state combined, legal marijuana sales jumped 63% last year, to more than $2.4 billion, according to those states' departments of revenue.

And U.S. cannabis revenue numbers are set to surge further, since California, with a population three times Colorado's and Washington's combined, voted last year to legalize recreational marijuana use.

In fact, the cannabis industry research firm New Frontier Data estimates that annual legal marijuana sales in the U.S. will almost quadruple between 2016 and 2025, to $24.2 billion, with medical accounting for 55% of that total and recreational accounting for 45%.

By comparison, Americans spent $25.2 billion on hard liquor at retail stores last year, according to the Distilled Spirits Council.

Recently, signs have pointed to pot tourism inching closer to the mainstream.

While American Green revealed few details about its acquisition and development of Nipton, growing numbers of pot-friendly Airbnb hosts and the proliferation of edible cannabis products are making it easier for pot-seeking tourists to partake in recreational consumption.

More importantly, traditional tourism entities such as Travel Portland are taking a more progressive approach to the sector. The DMO offers a web page outlining the state's regulations for legal marijuana consumption, even listing an "alternative yoga" class with a marijuana component.

The bureau also has one cannabis-related company as a member, a pot-tourism outfit known as the Potlandia Experience.

"The day could come where we promote marijuana tourism as much as craft beer," Hibdon said. But he also emphasized that the bureau does not list dispensaries and has never sponsored marijuana tourism.

"It's a very long way to go, but who knows?" he said.

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