Outdoor recreation delivered $454 billion to the U.S. economy in 2021, accounting for 1.9% of the nation’s economic activity and marking a huge rebound from the pandemic.
The fifth annual report from the Bureau of Economic Analysis released Wednesday shows outdoor recreation regaining lost ground from the pandemic impacts to travel and tourism in 2020. The record surge in 2021 — when adding outdoor recreation job earnings the industry delivered an $862 billion overall impact to the U.S.economy — is pushing industry advocates to call for more federal support of recreation.
“Outdoor recreation is one of the few areas where we are seeing bipartisan support,” said Frank Hugelmeyer, the president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association. (Boating was red hot in 2021, with boat buyers and manufacturers contributing $50.4 billion to the outdoor recreation economy, making it the industry’s largest sector.) “This is one of the few industry sectors that has the ability to reach across the partisan divide and bring people together to improve our economies and our quality of life.”
The federal government first started measuring the outdoor recreation economy in 2017, following the Outdoor Recreation Jobs and Economic Impact Act. The annual reports from the Department of Commerce show outdoor recreation users, manufacturers, service providers, retailers and supporting industries like travel and tourism driving an economy larger than the agriculture, energy, pharmaceuticals or electronics industries.
Since 2017, 18 states have created offices of outdoor recreation. Congress passed the Great American Outdoors Act in 2020, the largest conservation investment in decades directing billions into recreational access and infrastructure. The recent American Rescue Plan and Inflation Reduction Act directed even more into recreation infrastructure.
Outdoor recreation cheerleaders are urging federal lawmakers to pass the America’s Outdoor Recreation Act, which would streamline federal permitting for outdoor recreation across all land management agencies.
President Joe Biden this year reconvened the Federal Interagency Council on Outdoor Recreation, or FICOR, which was first formed by President Barack Obama in 2011, bringing together leaders from the Interior, Agriculture, Commerce and Defense departments to work together on expanding outdoor recreation opportunities.
The legislative momentum, support from the president and now economic numbers showing recreation as one of the strongest industries in the country are fueling outdoor recreation advocates to champion something “bigger than one piece of legislation,” said Jess Turner, president of the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable, which represents dozens of outdoor trade groups working for more than 110,000 outdoor businesses.
“FICOR is wonderful,” said Turner, who hopes to see a federal outdoor recreation office in Washington D.C.
“Having a national recreation office and someone in the office and in the White House who is focused on this economic sector and making sure all of these agencies are at the table as well as state and state directors, that would be our long-term goal,” Turner said.
The rebound from 2020 is the industry’s best argument for increased federal support. Many are quietly lobbying the Biden Administration to create a national office and an undersecretary of recreation, perhaps in the Department of Commerce. This week’s strong support for Democrats gives even more momentum to the push.
“There is a lot of wind at our backs right now,” said Conor Hall, the director of Colorado’s outdoor recreation office.
It wasn’t that long ago that outdoor recreation was not acknowledged as an economic engine. But now the recreation industry has growing economic and political clout.
The outdoor recreation economy’s $861.5 billion in economic output compares to $659.7 billion in 2020. The 2020 numbers showed outdoor recreation declining 19% from 2019, compared with a 3.4% decline in the national overall economy.
All 50 states saw declines in outdoor recreation dollars in 2020 compared with 2019. Colorado endured a 19.5% decline in 2020.
The 19% annual growth in the national outdoor economy in 2021 comes as the overall national economy grew 6% last year.
Most of the growth in 2021 came from a rebound in trips and travel around outdoor recreation. In 2020, traveling for outdoor recreation collapsed to $149.6 million in direct spending, investment and wage dollars supporting the outdoor recreation economy, compared with $291 million in 2019. The contribution of travel and tourism climbed to $257.9 million in 2021, floating the entire recreation economy to a record high.
The surge in travelers included a lot of campers, said Toby O’Rourke, the chief executive of Kampgrounds of America, the country’s largest network of independently owned campgrounds.
KOA counted 2021 as its best year in its 60-year history, with revenues up 33% over 2019, O’Rourke said. More Americans than ever consider themselves campers, she said. And like many sectors of the outdoors, participation grew during the pandemic when outdoor activities were a respite from urban shutdowns.
“The pandemic catapulted our business,” O’Rourke said.
Colorado’s outdoor recreation economy employed 125,244 workers in 2021 who earned $6.1 billion, accounting for 2.5% of all wages paid in the state. That compares to 120,063 jobs in 2020 with workers earning $5.7 billion.
Add those wages to the overall outdoor recreation industry in Colorado and the outdoor recreation economy contributed $11.6 billion to the state in 2021, accounting for 2.7% of the state’s GDP. That economic output in Colorado is up 20% from 2020.
Hall sees Colorado playing a leading role in the push for a federal recreation czar.
“Colorado is looking at more than 20% growth in one year. We are far outpacing every other industry in this state. This is the perfect time to see if we can create a federal office,” said Hall, noting the effort has the support of Colorado Gov. Jared Polis and U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper. “We have the buy-in. This is a big step and it’s an ambitious swing. But I think we have the momentum to make it happen.”