Outdoor recreation has a new tagline: a trillion-dollar industry.
The new measurement of the outdoor recreation economy by the Bureau of Economic Analysis shows outdoor businesses in 2022 earning $563.7 billion, accounting for 2.2% of the nation’s gross domestic product and employing 5 million workers.
Spending on outdoor recreation — defined by the bureau as gross output — reached $1.1 trillion, a 19% jump from 2021.
This is the sixth year the federal government has analyzed outdoor recreation. And the numbers continue to reveal an economic juggernaut that drives urban and rural communities across the country. Outdoor recreation now is bigger than the country’s mining, agriculture and technology industries.
The new easy-to-trumpet trillion-dollar impact arrives as federal lawmakers weigh the America’s Outdoor Recreation Act of 2023, a package of legislation that would, among, many things, champion recreation in federal land management plans, encourage private partnerships on federal campgrounds, support outdoor businesses and help rural communities manage the impacts of recreation.
The legislation, sponsored by Democrats and Republicans, has passed out of the U.S. Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee and is expected to be heard by a U.S. House committee soon.
“These numbers help us make the case for outdoor recreation priorities,” said Chris Perkins, the vice president of programs for the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable, a coalition representing 110,000 outdoor businesses, nonprofits and associations. “This gives the industry a seat at the table supporting the most comprehensive package of outdoor recreation bills in a generation.”
The Bureau of Economic Analysis measures the industry in three categories: “conventional” outdoor recreation, “other” outdoor recreation and “supporting” industries. The conventional category includes cycling, paddling, fishing, climbing, hunting, motorized recreation, RVing and skiing. Other recreation categories include going to amusement parks, concerts and sporting events, playing field sports, taking guided tours and gardening. Supporting industries include construction and travel.
Using the BEA yardstick, travel is the largest contributor to the outdoor recreation economy, accounting for more than $339 million — or roughly 40% — of the outdoor economy. The industries supporting outdoor recreation are up 28% compared with 2021, while the economic activity in the core outdoor recreation categories is up 12%.
But since 2018, when the bureau first began studying the outdoor economy, the economic impact of core activities are up 36%.
That’s understandable considering the spectacular growth and appeal of outdoor recreation in 2020 and 2021 as the pandemic pushed more people outside. Now, as other industries, like travel, rebound from the pandemic downturn, it’s understandable to see stronger growth in those peripheral, supporting economies, Perkins said.
Kent Ebersole, the head of the Boulder-based Outdoor Industries Association, said the $1.1 trillion mark “proves that the outdoor recreation industry is an economic force.” He said his group was “especially proud” to see the growth in core activities since 2019, with more than 55% of Americans getting outside for recreation.
The BEA is still compiling specific state data, but Colorado ranks sixth among states with the fastest growing outdoor recreation economies. Outdoor recreation employment in Colorado rose 9.2% in 2022, compared with a national average of 7.4%.
- In 2022, outdoor recreation in Colorado generated $13.9 billion in spending in 2022, which supported nearly 130,000 workers who earned $6.9 billion.
- In 2021, outdoor recreation in Colorado generated $11.6 billion in spending, which supported 125,244 workers who earned $6.1 billion.
- In 2020, outdoor recreation in Colorado generated $9.6 billion in spending, which supported 120,000 workers who earned $5.7 billion.
- In 2019, outdoor recreation in Colorado generated $12.2 billion in spending, which supported 149,140 workers who earned $6.47 billion.
- In 2018 outdoor recreation in Colorado generated $11.3 billion in spending, which supported 146,178 workers who earned $6 billion.
A big part of the 2022 growth in Colorado can be credited to snowsports. Nationally, the economic impact of all snow activity — skiing, snowboarding, snowmobiling and other winter sports — grew 39%, with spending reaching $13.2 billion. Skiing and snowboarding accounted for $7 billion of that. Colorado contributed $1.4 billion to that winter sports impact, more than twice any other state.
That jibes with ski industry numbers showing both the 2021-22 and 2022-23 ski seasons as the busiest ever for the nation’s resorts. And Colorado ski areas reported highs of 14 million visits in 2021-22 and 14.8 million in 2022-23. Colorado typically accounts for 20% to 25% of the nation’s ski resort business.
Luis Benitez, the first director of Colorado’s outdoor recreation office who now works as the chief impact officer at the Trust for Public Lands said the trillion-dollar mark should sway the federal government to form a federal office of recreation.
“Name another trillion-dollar economy that does not have a deep, well-constructed overwatch,” he said. “The time is now.”
The new federal office inside the Department of Commerce would direct the Biden Administration’s revived Federal Interagency Council on Outdoor Recreation. It would support natural resource protection. It would wade into public health and trade policies and promote higher education programs to better hone industry leaders, Benitez said.
As the race for the 2024 presidency begins, Benitez wants to see all candidates discussing how they will support and protect the nation’s newest trillion-dollar industry.
“The ’t’ really shifts the conversation,” he said. “The ’t’ changes things.”