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The outdoor recreation economy is booming, with the Bureau of Economic Analysis reporting outdoor business and participants creating a $788 billion economic impact in 2019. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

Outdoor recreation is emerging as a critical element in the economic recovery from COVID-19 as the recreation economy delivers a larger share of U.S. economic output for the second consecutive year.

The federal government’s latest tally of the outdoor recreation economy showed a $787.6 billion economic impact from businesses supporting 5.2 million jobs. The report from the Bureau of Economic Analysis issued this week showed outdoor recreation’s businesses and participants supported 2.1% of the nation’s economic output, or gross domestic product. 

This is the third annual report on the U.S. recreation economy. The 2017 report was the first to quantify the growing role of recreation in the national economy. Each year since, the recreation economy has grown, often at a faster rate than the national economy. 

The 2019 report from the BEA showed the recreation economy providing $459.8 billion in “nominal value” — spending minus the costs of goods and services — to the gross domestic product, which the bureau counted as $21.4 trillion in 2019. The bureau’s 2019 study showed the recreation economy’s “real gross output,” which covers consumer and business spending as well as wages, reached $787.6 billion, up from $776.8 billion in 2018 and $759.6 billion in 2017.

The outdoor recreation economy in the U.S. is “bigger than mining and bigger than agriculture and on par with broadcasting and telecommunications,” said bureau economist Dirk van Duym in a presentation early Tuesday after the report was released. 

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In Colorado, outdoor recreation accounted for more than $12.2 billion in economic impact, or about 3.1% of the state’s total economy. Outdoor recreation businesses in Colorado employed 149,140 workers who earned $6.4 billion. 

Not surprisingly, winter activities in Colorado delivered more than any other state with a $1.7 billion contribution to the state’s economy. At a national level, winter sports was the sixth largest economic contributor in the outdoor recreation industry with a $6.3 billion impact. 

Boating and fishing — the most popular outdoor activity in 30 states — led the outdoor recreation economy with a $23.6 billion contribution to the nation’s gross domestic product.  

The national boating industry is reporting record sales in 2020. Boating was the largest outdoor recreation activity for the nation in 2019, contributing $23.6 billion to the nation’s economy. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

Touring in recreational vehicles — or RVing — was next, with an $18.6 billion contribution, followed by hunting and motorcycling.

The Bureau of Economic Analysis said the outdoor recreation economy was led by the arts, entertainment, recreation, accommodation and food services industries. Other industries driving the recreation economy include retail and manufacturing. 

In Colorado, accommodation and food services led the state’s recreation economy — which is driven largely by private businesses — followed by arts, entertainment, recreation and retail shops. (The bureau analysis considers attendance at festivals and concerts as outdoor recreation.)

Outdoor arts and entertainment — including concerts and festivals like this one this fall in Buena Vista — were part of the state’s $12.2 billion outdoor recreation economy. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

All the industries that drive the country’s recreation economy are the ones that have suffered most during the pandemic, which settled hard on the West during the busy spring ski season and saw resorts, hotels and restaurants shuttered from mid-March into May. 

Outdoor recreation was ranked nationally among impacted industries in the pandemic, alongside food, lodging and hospitality. Recreation industry losses came not only from closures of outdoor areas, shops and manufacturing plants but also impacts to domestic and international supply chains. 

But as shutdowns lifted this spring, outdoor recreation boomed “like never before,” said Jessica Turner, the head of the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable, a coalition of 33 outdoor recreation organizations representing more than 110,000 businesses. 

Participation in outdoor activities has hovered around 48% to 50% of the population in the last 15 years of tracking by the Outdoor Industry Association. Surveys of participation from this summer and fall suggest participation has climbed to all-time highs near 69%, the association’s executive director Lise Aangeenbrug said, pointing to health and wellness contributions beyond dollars that are tied to people getting outside to play.

Erik Pritchard, the head of the Motorcycle Industry Council, said sales of motorcycles, all-terrain vehicles and side-by-side, off-highway vehicles during the pandemic are setting records with double-digit percentage growth in 2020 over 2018 and 2019. 

Outdoor recreation is “one of the few sectors holding up the economy during COVID,” said Frank Hugelmeyer, president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association, noting “a remarkable shift in how consumers are spending” during the pandemic. 

Between March and June this year, the boating industry sold 44,000 boats, a 10% increase over the same period of 2019, Hugelmeyer said. In Colorado, sales of rafts, paddleboards and kayaks boomed in the spring as rivers and lakes swelled with socially-distanced paddlers. 

The campground industry is on trajectory to surpass 2019’s record traffic, even after the spring shutdown, said Paul Bambei, the head of the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds, which represents about 3,000 privately-owned RV parks. 

Bambei said the campground industry saw a 185% increase in cancellations through April. But the industry has rebounded, with tens of thousands of first-time campers, Bambei said, noting a 19% increase in campground reservations in September and a 20% increase in deposits on RV and camper purchases for 2021. 

“This was a break-out year to get behind the wheel,” he said. 

Jason Blevins lives in Eagle with his wife, two teenage girls and a dog named Gravy. He writes The Outsider, a weekly newsletter covering the outdoors industry from the inside out. Topic expertise: Western Slope, public lands, outdoors,...