BY: Nick Kovacevich |
In May, women of all ages and occupations gathered south of San Francisco for a weekend of yoga, educational classes, spa treatments — and unlimited cannabis in every form imaginable, including smoothies, body creams and vapes. The so-called “cannabis tourists” came from all over the world to experience a Ganja Goddess Getaway, a wellness retreat designed for women who already love cannabis, as well as those who want a safe space to try it for the first time.
“Cannabis attracts everyone, from lawyers to truckers,” says co-founder Deidra Bagdasarian, who also created Bliss Edibles, now one of the premier cannabis confectioneries in the U.S. There’s been so much interest in her “glamp-out” cannabis weekends that she’s expanding across the country this year and overseas in 2019.
Bagdasarian isn’t alone. Cannabis tourism is growing at a fast clip, drawing thousands of people — and millions of dollars — to states where adult use of cannabis is legal. In Colorado alone, cannabis tourism has grown 51% since 2014, according to a report from the state’s department of revenue. The Colorado DOR said the state attracted some 6.5 million cannabis tourists in 2016, the most recent figures available. It estimates that number will have grown by at least 6% in 2017 and will match or exceed that figure this year. The report said those 6.5 million tourists logged nearly 18 million cannabis-use days in 2016, a clear demonstration of how the state racked up more than $5.2 billion in marijuana sales since it legalized cannabis in January 2014.
Meanwhile in California, “wine and weed” tours are becoming increasingly more popular. Party buses, with the driver sealed off from smoking passengers, tour wineries and dispensaries, allowing tourists to sample the various products on offer. Like Ganja Goddess, the tours, which cater to food and wine enthusiasts, attract both experienced marijuana users and newbies. Across the country there are also “puff and paint” events, featuring cannabis tastings, wine and the chance to paint your own masterpiece. One tour company plays on the mystique of cannabis, offering tours “behind the curtain” of the legal marijuana industry in six states, along with some sampling along the way. Major newspapers such as the San Francisco Chronicle now feature travel-section stories detailing the “five best places for marijuana tourism,” highlighting luxury cannabis getaways and DIY holidays.
But like the rest of the cannabis industry, tourism has a banking problem. Because cannabis is classified as a Schedule 1 substance by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, banks generally refuse to do business with the industry, making cash the only option. This also means there are all sorts of hurdles and hoops that tour organizers must navigate, such as finding a place where tourists can consume cannabis — even in states where it’s legal. Earlier this year, Denver started requiring cannabis tour operators to apply for special licenses to consume cannabis in public places, a move widely seen as an effort to curb cannabis tourism.
Because the legalized part of the industry is so new, many states simply have not addressed tourism — meaning cannabis, unlike alcohol, is by default legal only in privately owned homes and venues. After several false starts, Bagdasarian and Ganja Goddess formed a private social club that allows them to legally offer cannabis, and members to legally consume it. “Of course, anyone is welcome to join our ‘private,’ club,” says Bagdasarian.
All that legal uncertainty — along with residual stigma against cannabis use — means destination marketers mostly are staying away from promoting cannabis tourism in their areas. But states are starting to wake up to the potential, as data comes in showing just how profitable it can be. Marijuana Business Factbook estimates the economic impact of legal marijuana will increase 223% from 2017 to 2022. Colorado found that the more touristy the area of the state, the more marijuana costs, which in turn generates higher sales tax revenues. Last year, cannabis sales outpaced alcohol sales in Aspen for the first time. Additionally, towns near the border with states where cannabis use is not legalized have significantly higher per capita sales than interior areas. That out-of-state market of potential day-trippers is just waiting to be tapped.
Nevada, perhaps unsurprisingly as the home of Sin City, is ahead of the curve on cannabis tourism, despite the fact that cannabis use is outlawed on the Vegas Strip. Marijuana revenue last year exceeded expectations by 25%, generating new tax revenue of around $70 million for the state. That’s led Nevada to consider venues such as smoking parlors and pot lounges to make consumption easier and to draw more tourists. In November, a sort of cannabis theme park will open in Las Vegas, featuring laser graffiti walls, giant flying orbs, and light and water shows. And that’s before guests get to the dispensary. But as experienced tourism operators, the state also well knows how many attendant jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities come with a new industry.