Cannabis tourism is now a $17 billion industry
From marijuana farm tours to “bud and breakfast” hotels, American destinations are discovering that “canna-cations” aren’t just for stoners anymore
Adrienne, a fortysomething makeup artist, grew up in the mountains of northern Georgia, a state where cannabis is still illegal. When she and her husband were planning a vacation in 2018, Adrienne, who speaks with a nice Southern drawl and has been smoking marijuana since she was 14, suggested they go to California and see what it’s like to buy pot legally.
“I had never been to a dispensary before and I wanted a professional to bring us around so we could sit back and take in all the knowledge,” Adrienne says of the experience.
She booked an excursion with Emerald Farm Tours, which operates out of San Francisco and guides cannabis enthusiasts to local dispensaries and provides private tours of indoor cannabis grows in the Bay Area. Adrienne spent about $1,500 on her “canna-cation” for a half-day tour, a good selection of pot and a hotel room. Months later, she booked another trip with the same company, but this time she and some friends purchased the full-day excursion to visit an outdoor cannabis farm in Mendocino, three hours north of San Francisco.
Of course, Adrienne didn’t have to travel all the way to “America’s bud basket” in California to enjoy cannabis on vacation. As of now, 19 states and Washington, D.C., have legalized recreational cannabis, with several more states likely to join them this year.
As legalization spreads, pot has also become considerably less stigmatized. More than two thirds of American adults (68%) now support adult use, according to a Harris Poll fielded in May. Half of all millennials (50%) say that access to legal recreational cannabis is important when choosing a vacation destination, and more than four in ten millennials (43%) say they’ve specifically chosen a destination because cannabis was legal there.
For now, cannabis travel has been largely ignored by tourism boards and the industry, leaving millions of dollars on the table, says Victor Pinho, cofounder of Emerald Farm Tours. “They’re tourists and they’re shopping—they are here to spend money in the mecca of weed,” he says, explaining how his typical customer spends $300 to $400 at the dispensary during their visits, about three times as much as an average transaction with locals.
It’s still unclear how big the nascent cannabis tourism industry will eventually become, or what its potential economic impact on the $1.2 trillion U.S. tourism economy will be, but early data is promising. A prepandemic 2020 national study by market research firm MMGY Travel Intelligence found that nearly one in five (18%) American leisure travelers is interested in cannabis-related experiences on vacation. That number jumps to 62% when the survey sample is narrowed to cannabis-consuming adults over age 21 with an annual household income over $50,000.
Legal cannabis lifts other businesses, too. Out of $25 billion in legal cannabis sales in 2021, Forbes estimates that as much as $4.5 billion was driven by tourists, who pour an additional $12.6 billion into restaurants, hotels, attractions and other shops—as well as into state and municipality tax coffers. That’s because for every dollar spent at a cannabis retailer, there’s a multiplier effect, with an additional $2.80 injected into the local economy, says Beau Whitney, founder and chief economist at Whitney Economics, a leader in cannabis and hemp business consulting.
For many destinations, that’s mainly passive income with almost no local promotion. Consider Colorado, where recreational cannabis has been legal for a decade and brought in $423 million in taxes last year. The Colorado Tourism Office website offers little guidance for 420-friendly travelers other than generic cannabis safety tips, legal guidelines, and other practical advice. “Cannabis is not one of the major drivers in terms of tourism to our state, compared to categories like outdoor recreation,” says a Colorado tourism official via email, noting that there are no statistics or reports on the volume of travel or revenue.
While Colorado may not be proactively trying to attract tourists looking to experience its cannabis culture, the state’s entrepreneurs are. Denver’s Patterson Inn, a 9-bedroom boutique hotel located, appropriately, at 420 E. 11 Street, will soon be home to the city’s first licensed cannabis consumption lounge at a hotel. Owner Chris Chiari says his 1,000-square foot club, which will be named the 420 Suite, will be open to paying hotel guests by the end of the year. “I like to say it’s Soho House with weed,” says Chiari.
Meanwhile, some destinations are beginning to embrace cannabis tourism. The latest research paints a portrait of the typical cannabis traveler who looks less like a stereotypical stoner and more like any other upscale vacationer—one who was just as likely to be female as male, skewing toward millennials or younger (63%), with a college degree (59%), a job (82%) and an average household income of $87,000, according to a report from the Cannabis Travel Association International (CTAI), an industry trade group. “By 2025, 50% of travelers in the U.S. are going to be millennials,” says Brian Applegarth, the organization’s founder. “And their relationship to cannabis consumption is extremely normalized compared to the stigmatized industry leaders of today.”
Todd Aaronson, CEO of Visit Modesto, the convention and visitors bureau for the agricultural hub in California’s Central Valley, agrees. “Dog lovers are canna-users. Foodies are canna-users,” he says. “There is no difference between a cannabis traveler and every other traveler.”
Last year, Modesto partnered with Cultivar, a cannabis tourism strategy firm founded by Applegarth, to launch the MoTown CannaPass, a passport-style reward program that helps visitors discover a variety of restaurants, activities and cannabis retailers in the area. “We wanted the opportunity to say, ‘Hey, if cannabis is your thing, and you’re here, we have retail shops that are legal,’” says Aaronson. “And we have experiences that you can enjoy no differently than if you went to a brewpub or wine bar. They’re all equally regulated. You should have a designated driver for each. Every visitor is welcome. Leave your money here.”
Aaronson says the MoTown CannaPass delivered an immediate 11% boost in traffic to local cannabis retailers and also in overnight visits to Modesto. “No regrets whatsoever,” he says. “It was a significant result.”
With the map of legalized cannabis in the U.S. still resembling a patchwork quilt, California has emerged as the center of cannabis tourism for now, with a handful of other destinations across the Golden State recently launching their own programs, from the new Oakland Cannabis Trail, which takes visitors on an immersive journey through the city’s marijuana heritage, to Greater Palm Springs, whose tourism website highlights wellbeing through its retailers, hotels, spas and tours. And the Los Angeles Times recently dubbed the trendy West Hollywood neighborhood as “the Amsterdam of the Far West,” thanks to a high concentration of dispensaries, including some backed by celebrities from Jay-Z to Woody Harrelson.
What to know about cannabis tourism before you go
- In states where recreational cannabis is legal, the minimum age is 21.
- Every state where cannabis is legal has its own rules, which can also differ from city to city. Research local laws before arriving.
- Never drive while impaired. Plan ahead and use cabs, ride-shares or designated drivers.
• Many hotels do not allow smoking on-site, while others provide designated areas. Thousands of properties on Airbnb and Bud & Breakfast currently allow on-site smoking.
• It is illegal to cross state lines with cannabis in your possession.
• Cannabis is illegal on a federal level, which means it is illegal to bring it on a commercial flight. While the TSA is not specifically looking for weed, officers are obligated to alert local law enforcement if they discover it during a screening.
• Some destinations do not allow out-of-state visitors to purchase medical-grade cannabis even if they have a license in their home state. Check reciprocity rules before rolling up.
Elsewhere in the United States, cannabis tourism programs have popped up in some surprising pockets. In the Midwest, the Michigan Cannabis Trail helps visitors make the most of legal cannabis in the Great Lakes region. And in Kentucky, where recreational cannabis remains illegal, the Hemp Highway celebrates the CBD-only crop across the Bluegrass State.
Looking ahead, Florida has the potential to be a game changer for cannabis tourism on the East Coast. After California, the Sunshine State is second in the nation for overall tourism, hauling in $99 billion in visitor spending in 2019. Florida also boasts the country’s largest medical marijuana market at $1 billion (annual sales). But so far efforts to legalize recreational weed have been met with opposition from state leaders.
One executive with her eye on the tourism prize is Kim Rivers, CEO and cofounder of Trulieve, one of the nation’s largest cannabis companies—with a footprint in 11 states. “The opportunity will be massive,” Rivers says of Florida. “We have 21 million residents and 130 million tourists. In an adult-use market, our business would benefit extremely well.”
Rivers strategically positioned many of Trulieve’s dispensaries in places synonymous with tourism: Orlando, Key West, and near the famed Daytona International Speedway. Although attempts to legalize adult-use in Florida have failed, Rivers is confident that when it eventually happens it will transform the state’s market.
Just how big might Florida’s cannabis tourism market be if the state were to legalize recreational pot? In 2019, a financial impact study estimated that Florida could haul an additional $190 million in sales tax into Florida’s treasury “as a result of those sales and an accompanying increase in tourism.” Based on a 6% sales-tax rate, that would have assumed a potential $3.2 billion market three years ago. Not bad for a budding industry.