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Colorado’s explosive outdoor industry growth is emerging as global model

Luis Benitez, the director of Colorado's Outdoor Recreation Industry Office, toured Puerto Rico in September offering insights into developing a vibrant outdoor recreation industry as a tool for recovering from last year's hurricane. (Maricelis Rivera, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Luis Benitez is the outdoor industry’s apostle.

Carrying the message that the outdoors is a key to economic prosperity and a hale population, he’s helped spark outdoor recreation offices in a dozen states.

Now he’s taking his outdoor gospel global.

The inaugural boss of Colorado’s Outdoor Recreation Industry Office recently rolled his one-man revival through Puerto Rico, promoting a focus on outdoor tourism as a vital tool in rebuilding the American territory’s economy one year after the devastating Hurricane Maria.

“They are looking at it from an economic development standpoint. I wasn’t pitching them. They called us. They are seeing these numbers and they are saying ‘Wait a minute. We should have that too,’” Benitez said just after he delivered his outdoors-can-save-the-world stump speech at The Meeting in Aspen earlier this month, where creative types and outdoor industry cheerleaders rallied around his message.

“For decades now Puerto Rico has focused on the beach economy,” he added. “There’s a whole island that offers all these other things that can diversify their economy.”

The stateside movement to create outdoor recreation offices has focused on four fundamental reasons to embrace the outdoor industry:

  • Outdoor businesses and recreating visitors spur economic development in both rural and urban communities.
  • Recreation fosters health and wellness among residents.
  • Playing outside encourages environmental education and training programs for the growing industry’s workforce.
  • The more people recreate, the more they support conservation and protect open spaces.

Those four pillars anchor the Confluence Accords, a sort of outdoor constitution for the first eight states to join the outdoor-recreation-office bandwagon. The accords are a roadmap for diverse states — Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, Washington, Oregon, North Carolina and Vermont — to infuse an outdoor recreation ethic into public policy. In the few months since the first-eight heads of state outdoor recreation offices gathered to sign the accords on a Denver rooftop, another four states have joined the movement.

Directors of eight state offices of outdoor recreation, left to right, Colorado’s Luis Benitez, Montana’s Rachel VandeVoort, North Carolina’s David Knight, Oregon’s Cailin O’Brien-Feeney, Utah’s Tom Adams, Vermont’s Michael Snyder, Washington’s Jon Snyder and Wyoming’s Domenic Bravo, show the freshly signed Confluence Accords atop the Le Meridien Hotel in Denver on July 25. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

It’s spreading beyond the country’s boundaries as well. After he got back from Puerto Rico, he got a call from economic-development boosters in Panama.

Eli Helmuth spent three decades in outdoor recreation in Colorado, running a climbing outfitting operation in Estes Park, guiding for Boulder’s Colorado Mountain School and leading climbing trips for Outward Bound.

Helmuth moved to Puerto Rico two years ago to launch a rock climbing guiding company. He’s set up routes across the country, exploring the tropical limestone and spurring the country’s nascent climbing scene.

“The valley where we live, it’s just blanketed with dozens and dozens of high-quality cliffs and most have never been explored. I just saw great potential here. I wanted to come here and plant some seeds and help nurture the climbing tourism industry here,” Helmuth said from his home near Ciales, Puerto Rico.

A client climbs with veteran Colorado mountain guide Eli Helmuth’s company at a limestone crag in Puerto Rico last year. Helmuth opened a guiding operation in Puerto Rico two years ago to help develop an outdoor economy in the U.S. territory. He’s since hosted hundreds of climbing vacationers on routes he’s developed around the country. (Jim Aikman, Special to The Colorado Sun.)

Helmuth points to a 2016 survey of climbers in the Red River Gorge showing more than 7,500 annual climbers spending $3.6 million in the rural communities around the Kentucky climbing destination.

“That’s one little town in Kentucky. If Kentucky can do it — and I think we have an edge over Kentucky in terms of climbing — than we can do it here,” Helmuth said. “The next big step is enlisting government support. We want to plant the seeds that adventure travel and tourism is not insignificant and it would benefit the country and the government to invest in this sector.”

All of Puerto Rico needs investment.

Hurricane Maria caused about $100 billion in damage, with the island’s tourism infrastructure — beachside hotels and resorts — suffering a decimating blow. The island attracts about 5 million visitors a year, stirring a $4 billion tourism industry.

Rebuilding Puerto Rico after Maria will cost $139 billion. Thousands of homes still need roofs. The electric grid needs to be rebuilt. Demand for construction workers exceeds supply. And Puerto Rico is trying to restructure $120 billion in debt in federal district court.

There’s a lot going on in Puerto Rico right now. But the U.S. territory is fertile ground for a vibrant recreation economy, said Benitez, who spent a week touring the island, sitting on economic development panels, talking with reporters and generally proselytizing.

“They are trying to figure out right now what to invest in, what it looks like. And one of those areas is how do they pull tourism off the beaches and start talking about trail development and rock climbing and really expanding beyond oceanfront tourism,” he said.

Benitez offered the roadmap drawn in Colorado: Start with a listening tour. Travel the state and talk with every faction of the outdoor community. Band them together on an advisory team. Forge initiatives supporting open spaces, access, permitting, public-private partnerships and business development. Unite those within — and beyond — the outdoor recreation industry in a recognition of the power of play.

It’s a safe bet that Luis Benitez used the words “ecosystem” and “galvanize” many times on his tour of Puerto Rico in September, where the loquacious boss of Colorado’s Outdoor Recreation Industry Office championed an outdoor economy as a tool for rebuilding after Hurricane Maria. (Maricelis Rivera, Special to The Denver Post.)

That’s how it worked in Colorado, where the outdoor recreation economy generates $28 billion in annual spending and employs 229,000 workers who earn $9.7 billion a year. All that activity around the industry generates $9 billion in taxes every year.

Benitez relishes the role as global ambassador for recreation.

“I will do everything in my power to make this a global initiative,” he said. “This is how we support emerging middle classes, drive health and wellness, talk about economic development. And if I can find the right level of federal support, we can have these conversations with many other countries.”


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