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Colorado Braces for Economic Hit

July 25, 2000

CORTEZ, Colo. (AP) _ Jack van Oosterbosch waited 32 years to travel from Holland to Mesa Verde National Park. He will have to wait some more.

A huge blaze burning in and near the park in southwestern Colorado prevented his visit to the Anasazi cliff dwellings over the weekend.

``It should have been one of the highlights of our trip but we can’t afford to wait any longer,″ said van Oosterbosch, 45, who first read about the park in a comic book as a boy.

Montezuma County, which promotes itself as ``Mesa Verde Country,″ is bracing for an economic slowdown as people like van Oosterbosch cancel their visits to the nation’s largest archaeological preserve.

Colorado’s latest blaze comes during peak tourist season for the remote Four Corners county that has a population of 22,000.

Nearly 40 percent of the park’s 650,000 annual visitors come here during July and August, according to Lynn Dyer, the county’s tourism director.

With an estimated $5 million sales impact each month during July and August, a tourist slowdown ``makes a big difference,″ Dyer said Monday.

Visits to the park already are down 12 percent this year and the fire is not expected to help.

``We’ve lost our tourist season,″ said Yolanda Blair, a gift shop worker who has lived in Cortez since 1958.

The area’s 55 lodging establishments have already begun to feel the pinch.

``I’ve had people calling to cancel their reservations because they can’t get up to Mesa Verde,″ said Carolyn Smith, a front desk clerk at Best Western Turquoise Suites. ``That’s why people come here.″

Hardest hit is Aramark Inc. of Philadelphia, which operates the 150-room Far View Lodge, a 450-site campground, a gas station, restaurants and gift shops inside the park.

``We’re losing between $60,000 and $75,000 a day,″ said Dale McFarland, regional general manager for Aramark/Mesa Verde Co.

The full impact of the fire has not been felt yet as hundreds of people wait for the park to open.

``We’ll see the impact next week when people start to divert around us,″ Dyer said. ``Once it gets out into the national news, people will have opportunities to alter their plans.″

Attendance at the park dipped in 1993 when the hantavirus was discovered on the nearby Navajo Reservation in New Mexico and Arizona, and in 1998 following the slaying of a deputy and massive manhunt. It also fell in 1996, the year of another major fire.

Van Oosterbosch was forced to postpone his trip to Mesa Verde: ``We’re going to some ruins in New Mexico, but they’re a substitute. Mesa Verde is the thing.″

___

On the Net:

Park site: http://www.mesa.verde.national-park.com

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