Hot Rhetoric Chills Colorado Tourism; Governor Stands by Wildfire Remarks as Travel Industry Does a Slow burn.(PAGE ONE)

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 24, 2002 | Go to article overview

Hot Rhetoric Chills Colorado Tourism; Governor Stands by Wildfire Remarks as Travel Industry Does a Slow burn.(PAGE ONE)


Byline: Valerie Richardson, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

DENVER - When Colorado Gov. Bill Owens declared recently that "all of Colorado is on fire," he grabbed the nation's attention and made the state's wildfire disaster a top federal priority.

He also may have driven a stake in the heart of Colorado's summer tourism industry.

That may sound like a minor quibble in a state wracked by wildfire devastation, but it's a big deal to the hotel and restaurant owners, ranchers, rafting guides and outfitters who depend on summer vacationers for their livelihood.

In a state where tourism ranks as the second-largest industry, Mr. Owens has come under sharp criticism for what tourism officials complain was an exaggerated description of the fire's toll. His remarks, delivered June 9 as fires blazed out of control statewide, ran on television news shows and in newspapers throughout the world.

"That was a bummer," said Jill Strunk, spokeswoman for the Denver Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau. "You have the governor of the state saying, 'All of Colorado is burning' and how it looks like a 'nuclear winter' around here; then you see these pictures, and you can't help but think he's right."

The governor has stood by his remarks, explaining that they were meant to show solidarity with communities threatened by the fires. His comments came at a town gathering in Glenwood Springs, which was directly threatened by the Coal Seam fire.

"He meant that the fire affected all of Colorado and that they had our prayers and support," said his spokesman, Dan Hopkins. "It was a very spontaneous, unscripted moment."

As for the governor's comment that the haze covering Denver looked like the fallout from a "nuclear winter," Mr. Hopkins said that even lifelong residents would agree that the city looked that day like never before.

"To anyone who saw it, it was stunning," Mr. Hopkins said.

Outside Colorado, however, the governor's comments were interpreted literally, critics say. The state has been flooded with calls from worried family members and potential travelers under the impression that Denver had transformed into an inferno.

"We've had people call as far as Germany and Japan saying they've heard Denver might be evacuated and they're not sure they should still come," Miss Strunk said.

The Rocky Mountain News criticized Mr. Owens in an editorial for his "melodramatic language" but quipped that it could have been worse. "[L]ook on the bright side: At least the governor didn't invite tourists across the country to 'come visit Denver and experience the flavor of old Pompeii. …

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