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Crowds and tourism dollars slowly return to the Great Sand Dunes National Park after COVID-19 reopening

Despite high winds, occasional rain and COVID-19 fears, visitors ventured out onto the the Great Sand Dunes National Park to stretch their legs and enjoy the park on June 6. 2029 (Nick Penzel for PULP Colorado)

Opening weekend at Great Sand Dunes National Park saw tourists from all over the country enjoying a return to normalcy as COVID restrictions were lifted. But the park is more than just a pretty landscape – it’s one of the biggest economic drivers in the San Luis Valley.

For the region, which is one of the poorest areas in the state, the upcoming tourist season will be one of the most challenging in San Luis Valley’s history.

Despite the high wind and sporadic rain that pelted the Sand Dunes, the main parking lot was nearly full. License plates from Texas to California and sun hat cladden tourists spoke to a normal day at the park. However, the opening weekend at the park points to a much larger question. What does the tourist season in Colorado look like under COVID?

“I think people mentally, like, they need an escape and something to get outside and make them feel alive again,” said Jcee Sunshine, a Denver resident who was visiting the park over the opening weekend. “For national parks opening, as long as you follow the rules and be responsible, I think it’s a good thing.”

Park officials have implemented a number of changes to keep guests and workers safe. The visitors center still provides guest services, but instead of going inside an employee hands out maps and answers questions from behind a plexiglass shield just inside the door.

“It’s been a very calculated decision and we are just happy to be open,” said Kathy Faz public information officer.

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While most of the Great Sand Dunes National Park is open visitors will have a different experience due to COVID-19 safety precaustions including park staff waiting behind plexiglass to hand out maps and stamp National Parks passports. (Nick Penzel for PULP Colorado)

 

The park is currently in phase one of reopening, which means visitors can come enjoy the dunes, but some of the facilities are closed. Phase two, which is contingent on the success of the initial reopening, will see the campground reopening.

Visitation has been lower than normal for June, according to Faz. “Because we’ve been closed any number of visitors is going to feel like a lot of visitors,” said Faz. But a slower start may be for the best as the park works to make sure everything is safe and going according to plan.

The park’s first mission is to ensure that its staff are safe so that they can make sure that visitors can safely enjoy themselves. This has meant a lot of planning and communication with the local community. Thanks to all the planning, Faz says, the opening has been smooth.

“I have confidence in the plan for reopening the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. The Park has done a great job balancing the public health needs of their visitors and staff as they increase public access to the national treasure in our backyard,” said Alamosa County Public Health Director Della Cox-Vieira in a recent press release.

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People speckle the Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado as they walk away from Medano Creek. (Nick Penzel for PULP Colorado)

The park is asking visitors to follow CDC guidelines, social distance, and wear masks when appropriate. For many visitors, these actions along with the expansive landscape of the dunes, are enough to make them feel safe.

“You can be outside and actually do something and feel a little more comfortable than if you are stuck in your house,” said Kirstin Dobson of Cheyanne, WY. “You can socially distance better in a situation like this than, say, going to the grocery store,” she added.

In this way, Great Sand Dunes National Park provides a unique opportunity — one different than some of the smaller parks in the region.

“I think certain parks need their own criteria, but this is just such a wide open space here, it’s good to practice social distancing,” said Leo Aristov of Denver. “Smaller spaces like Rocky Mountain National are going at about 50% capacity.”

For Alamosa County, which is a gateway into the park, the reopening may provide much needed economic relief after two months of shutdown.

“For the San Luis Valley it’s huge. We need it open. It brings a lot of the economy through our valley… So come March through September, we need it open so our businesses can stay thriving,” said Holly Coulson, a worker at the Great Sand Dunes Oasis. The Oasis is one of the businesses that is totally reliant on the park. They rent sand boards and sleds for park guests as well as operate a restaurant and gift shop.

Now that the park is open, Coulson says business is good. But for months Oasis was completely closed and Coulson worries that other businesses may not be as fortunate as them.“It was awful. It’s devastating what’s happening … you know a lot of people are going to lose their businesses this year because of this. It’s really sad.”

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The Great Sand Dunes National Park is a major economic driver in the San Luis Valley generating a half-million visitors a year. (Nick Penzel for PULP Colorado)

As the summer season continues, the full scope of the economic impact on the region is yet to be seen, according to Kale Mortensen, the executive director of Alamosa’s Convention and Visitors Bureau. He says they can’t really know what the closure means for at least three more months.

“2019 was a record year that saw over 500,000 people come through the park,” said Mortensen. “It’s huge… The sand dunes are our biggest attraction here in southern Colorado.”

The San Luis Valley has traditionally been an agricultural economy, but tourism has diversified the region’s economy. According to Mortensen, in 2018 Alamosa County brought in $46.8 million in visitor spending.

In the broader region, $115 million and 1,600 jobs are spread across six counties thanks to the tourism industry. “It’s not a far stretch to say that a lot of that is due to the national park in our backyard,” said Mortensen.


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