The stretch of of the Arkansas River between Buena Vista and Canon City is among the most popular in the state. For fishermen, rafters and other water sport enthusiasts it’s a place for adventure or unwinding, but for nearby communities the river is the lifeblood of the economy.
“Last year was a down year (because of the Royal Gorge wildfire),” said Colorado Springs Visitors Bureau chairman Andy Neinas, who also owns Echo Canyon River Expeditions in Canon City. “We had 191,307 people, who rafted with a commercial river outfitter on the Arkansas River. That generated $12,107,835.62 in gross receipts. That’s direct expenditures so we’re a $12 million industry.”
According to the Colorado River Outfitters Association the economic impact of the river totals $23 million in direct expenditures. That has to do with the extra products the rafting industry sells, he said.
In 2013, the association reported the Arkansas river having a $55 million economic impact.
“So the ($12 million) number I gave you earlier is the cost of the raft trips,” Neinas said. “(We’re also selling) the wetsuits at retail, selling photography or things along that line so we calculate our economic impact on this river is $60,734,207. Obviously half of that is the lower river or Fremont County.”
The outfitters association said in an end of the year report in 2013 that the Arkansas River accounted for 38 percent of the market share of impact of river rafting in the state. It topped even the Colorado River by a wide margin.
The money earned from rafting is a significant investment, Neinas said. He employs 130 people within his organization.
He employs teachers who work during the summers, as well as providing first job for younger people, and people who have been with the organization for years. Along with the rafting business, Neinas owns a 14,000-square foot facility as well as multiple properties in the area. So, the money made from his tourism business gets spent locally.
“Tourism affects everybody,” Neinas said. “If you own a hardware store in town, you’re seeing tourism dollars because of me (and others in the industry). I just bought a new vehicle from the local Ford dealer. We collectively, as an industry, really do make a difference within the river communities as a whole. We are the ambassadors of Colorado to a lot of visitors who are coming to the area.”
But it’s not only Fremont and Chaffee counties.
“I just bought thousands and thousands of dollars in Pueblo so our reach of industry is not confined simply to Fremont County or Canon City,” Neinas said. “Obviously we do a lot of business in Colorado Springs, as well.”
He said many people come to Colorado simply to raft; however, once they get here, they visit other tourist attractions in the region.
“(Rafting) is just one of the varied opportunities for visitors to have,” Neinas said. “(They can visit) the wonderful Royal Gorge Bridge and Park, the Royal Gorge Route Railway, Seven Falls and there’s a laundry list of spectacular attractions throughout the region so a lot of times, we’re a day trip.”
Recently, Brown’s Canyon between Salida and Buena Vista was designated as a National Monument and a 102 stretch of the Arkansas River between Buena Vista and Canon City was designated as a Gold Medal Fishery in 2014.
“This is the longest, single contiguous Gold Medal waters in the State of Colorado,” Neinas said. “The economic impact on the fishery would be an addition to the (earlier) numbers.”
There are also private anglers who fish the rivers, where the numbers may not be calculated in these reports, he said.
“We endeavor to bring more people to Colorado Springs and PIkes Peak,” Neinas said. “There is no imaginary line that separates us from (Colorado Springs to Fremont County) in the eyes of the visitor.”
Rafting is just one element of tourism, he said. Hunting, fishing, wildlife viewing and state park visitation also are important to the state, said representatives at the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area and Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
“(These industries) contribute roughly $6.1 billion in economic effects statewide,” said Public Information officer Abbey Walls in a press release. “Based on a 2014 economic study by Southwick Associates, fishing alone contributes more than $1.9 billion in economic effect statewide and 16,413 jobs each year.”
In Fremont and Chaffee Counties, the Arkansas River is one of the most popular places to raft and fish, she said.
“This year (2014), a better than average snowpack and an improved economy, helped lead to an increase of 6.8 percent commercial boats and 12.1 percent increase of private boats over 2013 in the AHRA,” Walls added. “More than 250,000 people experienced the Arkansas River by boat (in 2013).”
But fishing also is an important industry in the area.
“There were an estimated 80,346 anglers using the AHRA in 2014, compared to 73,150 in 2013,” she added. “It’s estimated that the economic impact of anglers is (about) $103.16 per day.”
Although fly fishing does not have as big an economic impact that rafting has, it is a major industry in the area, said Royal Gorge Anglers owner Taylor Edrington.
“As the longest Gold Medal fishery in North America, it’s definitely brought an influx of traffic even though the Arkansas River was already the most fly fished area in the state because there’s so much public access.”