Cranes bring millions of tourist dollars to San Luis Valley

Photos by Brian Williams Sandhill cranes bring millions of tourism dollars to the Monte Vista community, according to a survey of 2020 Crane Festival-goers.

MONTE VISTA — Each year, sandhill cranes fly to Monte Vista and bring millions of dollars in tourism.

At the Monte Vista City Council meeting, Jenny Nehring and Deb Callahan presented information that showed the economic impact of the 2020 Monte Vista Crane Festival from their visitor survey was $3.4 million.

From their survey, they broke down the average spending per day for each type of visitor from locals to those doing day trips, and those who were staying at hotels for the festival.

“The resulting numbers are roughly $3.4 million that comes into our Valley, to our community just from people visiting in the Spring to see cranes,” said Nehring, adding, “Keep in mind though these cranes they come through twice a year. They come through in March in the Spring that’s when we’re used to our cranes and our festival, but they also come through in the Fall. So, this is quite literally money that falls from the sky two times a year.”

Nehring told the council they held the last regular crane festival in 2020 just before the world changed due to COVID-19.

“The data I’m presenting is the economic impact of crane fest during a normal time period when visitors can freely come, travel, and stay,” said Nehring during the City Council meeting on April 1. 

During their presentation, Nehring gave some background about the cranes and why they come through the San Luis Valley. The Rocky Mountain population of the Greater Sandhill Crane comes through Monte Vista and the San Luis Valley during their migration. Nehring said there are approximately 25,000 birds in this population. 

A slide Nehring showed, tracked the routes that these birds take with all of them bottlenecking through the San Luis Valley, on their migration twice a year to breeding and wintering grounds. 

As part of the survey, Nehring said they set up pneumatic vehicle counters.

“We had those set up in locations around the refuge. The pneumatic vehicle counters were set up for 60 days so you could catch the number of cars in the area with cranes and without cranes. And the survey time period was approximately 30 days. It was cut short just a bit because of COVID,” explained Nehring, later sharing that the car count data over the 30-day period was an estimated 20,000 crane viewers. They also noticed an 89% decrease in car count when the cranes were not present. 

Nehring also said the cranes aren’t just in Monte Vista during the Crane Festival weekend in March. 

“The reality is that the cranes are here for about 6 weeks. And they’re here in peak numbers for about 3 weeks. So, anyone who enjoys coming to the Valley to see cranes knows that you can come the weekend before or after Crane Festival and have as good or sometimes even better viewing. If you’re not a fan of large crowds then you can skip Crane Festival and still come down and have spectacular viewing opportunities,” said Nehring. 

They had 261 survey responses for their page with 95.6% of people asked to do the survey filling it out. Of those surveyed, 12% responding to the survey were San Luis Valley residents, and the other 88% percent were from outside of the Valley. 

The survey also showed they had visitors from 15 different states. Ninety percent of the visitors were from Colorado. Most visitors came from counties on the front range like Denver, Colorado Springs area and Boulder. 

Nehring said Crane Fest-goers were also asked if they would take advantage of other spending opportunities if they were offered.

“It was a resounding yes. And from that information, they extrapolated that an additional $316,000 could be made from visitors attending Crane Festival. And so, some examples of additional events are happy hour, live music, and other public land tours. This does not need to be additional activities that the Crane Fest committee plans for Crane Festival. This is just additional opportunities that our town could provide to these visitors when they’re here. The Crane Fest committee is happy to publicize all the unique opportunities our community would like to put together,” said Nehring later adding, “There’s more money to made — $3.4 million is a really big number and there’s more money to be made.” 

The Monte Vista Crane Festival started in 1983 and has never skipped a year.

“Our Crane Fest is the oldest birding festival in the State of Colorado. And it’s one of the oldest in the whole nation of a birding festival. We did an online festival this year, so we are proud to say that we’ve never skipped a year on Crane Fest since 1983,” said Nehring. 

Nehring and Callahan shared with the council that they do not have to advertise the well-established festival and that many visitors hear about the event by word of mouth. 

Later in their presentation, they discussed some ideas on how to make the festival even better.

“There’s charm to our festival because of our charming little town, and we don’t want to lose that. So, growing it bigger is not the ask here, it’s making it better. And giving more things for people to do, the visitors we already have,” said Nehring. 

Callahan said that an example of this was the success “the Swoop of the Cranes” art installation has brought to the festival. The entire presentation can be viewed at

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