Cannabis & The Tourism Industry

Cannabis legalization is changing the tourism industry.

Like wine or beer tours, food tours, or haunted tours, people travel to have both new experiences and more of what they like. For cannabis consumers, traveling to a legal state presents a unique opportunity to support local businesses, try new strains, and, if they’re coming from a dry state, imbibe to their heart’s content.

Cannabis tourism is still a budding niche (pun intended) with the potential for massive growth. Frequent users and first time tokers alike are interested in visiting states, towns, and cities where consumption is legal, and they’re willing to pay more to do it. On average, tourists spent over $330 per trip on cannabis related products and experiences.

Case in point: Colorado, where recreational cannabis use was legalized in 2012. In the following year, 121,000 room nights were added each month. Overall, hotel stays grew by 7% and the cost to stay grew 2.8%. In Washington, where consumption was legalized the same year, the cost of room nights grew 3.8% and hotel stays increased by 3.5%.

Cannabis tourism grew 51% in Colorado between 2014 and 2019. By 2015, the state brought in 489.8 million dollars in cannabis sales. 20% of that came from tourist spending alone. A study conducted in 2016 by Longwoods International found that 14% of the 82.4 million visitors who came to Colorado engaged in cannabis activities, and 6% of travelers said legality was the main reason for their visit. In 2017, cannabis sales exceeded alcohol sales in Aspen.

The Impact of Cannabis Tourism

As legalization spreads from Canada to Mexico, the Caribbean, and throughout the US, it becomes increasingly relevant to understand how cannabis affects tourism. It offers the promise of an economic boom- from increased tax revenue from cannabis sales, to increased hotel nights and more jobs for those in hospitality services.

And yet DMOs, CVBs, Chamber of Commerce and local governments are still reticent to promote cannabis as a tourism angle. While destinations are comfortable talking about options from alcohol to sex clubs, cannabis is still the topic most don’t want to touch. The lasting stigma of consumption and divided opinions of their local communities keep them quiet on what will continue to be a lucrative niche.

Nor will cannabis cheapen the destinations where it resides. One only needs to look at the legacy of Amsterdam- a haven for cannabis travelers for decades, and yet appealing without it too, with the history, architecture, and food of the region (tulip festival anyone?) It’s estimated that 20 – 30% of travelers go to Amsterdam to enjoy the cannabis coffee houses. That still leaves a resounding 70-80% of travelers who don’t travel to imbibe- and yet it’s a percentage of travelers who must be taken seriously and can be marketed to.

As experiential tourism continues to rise, cannabis legalization presents a new avenue of opportunities to take visitors behind the scenes and give them an exclusive look at the process of growing and packaging commercial cannabis. Think wine tour where at each stop visitors are able to try a small nug of a different strain, an infused cooking class, or a specialty massage.

There are those who worry that cannabis tourism is not sustainable, but rather a part of an ever-inflating bubble of cannabis madness that’s bound to burst. And while I concur that the industry is headed for a rude awakening, it’s not on the tourism front. Cannabis tourism is just as enticing, if not more enticing, than alcohol or food tours.

A 2020 report found that 18% of travelers were motivated to visit a destination because of the legal status of cannabis. Of those studied, 19% said they had their first experience with cannabis while traveling.

Traveling for Cannabis

Last year, my partner and I visited Alaska. This year, we’re traveling to California in December. While cannabis was not the sole factor in our decision to visit these states, it played a large part. We’re avid hikers so the intersection of great mountains and legal weed make it a short list to choose from for domestic travel.

One of the highlights of our trip to Alaska were the dispensaries we visited. In fact, a dispensary was the first place we went after checking into our Airbnb in Anchorage! We spent a few hundred dollars, loading up on flower, rolling papers, prerolls, edibles, and one luxurious blunt. Since you can’t fly with cannabis even in-state, another dispensary was our first stop in Juneau. In addition to supporting local businesses, it’s always a joy to discover a new, unique dispensary. Our only complaint was Alaskan Thunderfuck was in short supply, but luckily Fairbanks Thunderfuck was not!

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