Airlines booked 16 percent more flights from St. Louis to Denver since December 1, and number crunchers think marijuana tourism may be behind the boost.
Demand for flights to Denver jumped to 10 percent above the national average this month, peaking at 14 percent during the first week of January, says Patrick Surry, the chief data scientist at the Boston-based travel planning site Hopper.com.
"We started looking at what's going on with Denver," Surry tells Daily RFT. "What we see is that demand in terms of the number of people looking for flights to Denver has gone up a lot since January 1."
Demand jumped 16 percent in St. Louis, 30 percent in Kansas City and 32 percent in Omaha in early 2014, according to Surry's findings, whereas traffic matched national averages a year ago.
Hopper's researchers considered several explanations behind the nationwide numbers bump.
They started with skiing, since Denver is a popular destination for skiers and snowboarders. But other ski-centric destinations, including Albuquerque, Salt Lake City and Jackson Hole, don't show the same January spike.
"It doesn't seem as though [the increased Denver traffic] is a seasonal thing," Surry says. "It doesn't match the pattern of demand you see for ski vacations. People are planning ski vacations earlier."
Demand for tickets to other ski resorts starts in November, when ski season opens, not in early January.
Surry also considered football as a potential draw. This year's Super Bowl is between the Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks, the two teams from states where pot has been legalized. But Denver's popularity as a travel destination didn't line up with the NFL post-season.
Only one thing really matches up: Just as traffic to Denver's airport spiked early this month, the state of Colorado made marijuana legal for most adults.
"We can't say for sure what the cause is, but demand has been going up. It started at the same time the news cycle was going on about marijuana legalization," Surry says. He adds: "It seems like a pretty good case could be made" that weed is the real draw."
St. Louis joins many other U.S. cities in seeing an increase in flight traffic to Denver. Twelve of the top 50 origin cities for Denver flights saw a 25 percent or more boost in traffic, according to Hopper, with Nashville leading the pack with a 63 percent increase.
What's interesting, says Surry, is that the states with atypical demand for Denver flights also have some of the strictest drug laws in the country.
"When you look at our map of those origins, they are all clustered in the Midwest," Surry says. "All those states, other than Minnesota, have strict laws. There's no decriminalization or medical use."