Icelandic visitors: Park status would improve marketability for monument
When Sif Gunnardsdottir and her husband, Omar Sigurbergson, approached Colorado National Monument last week, they had little idea what they were going to see.
Like many American tourists, they were thinking that “some kind of statue” was going to be the payoff for the trip, Sigurbergson said.
“It was the most unmonument-like monument I had ever seen,” Gunnardsdottir said.
It’s not as though the couple has seen little beyond the edges of their native Iceland. As the director of Visit Reykjavik, Gunnardsdottir is well traveled, but nothing prepared her for the ochre spires, steep cliff walls and hanging canyons of Colorado National Monument, she said.
“We kept saying, ‘Is it real?’” to Barbara Bowman, the Grand Junction Visitor and Convention Bureau division manager who met the couple in Denver for the inaugural flight of Icelandair to Denver International Airport. Bowman then encouraged them to visit Grand Junction for a tour of the Grand Valley.
Colorado National Monument, Gunnardsdottir said, is something that she, and many European travelers, need to see to believe, Gunnardsdottir said.
Even her familiarity with American television, magazines and the like left her unprepared for the sight of the canyons and monoliths that loom high above the valley, Gunnardsdottir said.
“The colors, the slopes, the size of it,” she said. “Everything was just so unfamiliar.”
The fact that the monument is a monument, and not a national park, is a key element detracting from its marketability to Europeans and other international travelers, Gunnardsdottir said.
“We know a national park stands for something,” she said. “A monument doesn’t ring any bells, but a national park does.”
National parks cause those bells to ring out longer, said Paul Zaenger, chief ranger at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.
The Black Canyon transitioned to a national park from a monument in 1999 and after a short-lived spike in tourism, visitation trends have tracked with economic conditions, Zaenger said.
The biggest difference Black Canyon officials have noted is that visitors tend to stay longer, up from a few hours as they traveled to and through the area to an average length of stay of about 16 hours. If visitors remain for more than the daylight hours, “You see an economic driver,” Zaenger said, suggesting that “a lot of people come to national parks intending to make them at least a mini-destination. They’re planning being here for a while, hiking the trails, intending to make (it) at least a mini-destination ... taking in a range of experiences.”
Longer stays also give visitors the opportunity to visit other nearby attractions, such as local festivals, the Ute Museum on the opposite side of Montrose, or take on other activities in the Curecanti National Recreation Area, Zaenger said.
“That’s something we as rangers want people to do,” he said, ” (to) have a more personal relationship with the resources.”