Outdoor Recreation's Contribution to Washington, National Economy Dips During Pandemic, Long-Term Outlook Still Rosy


The outdoor recreation's contribution to the U.S. economy shrank 19% from 2019 to 2020 and employment in that sector fell by 17.1%, according to a report conducted by the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Despite those pandemic-fueled declines, outdoor recreation still accounted for a significant portion of the United States' economy, with 1.8% of the U.S. gross domestic product, 1.7% of Washington's GDP, 2.7% of Idaho's and a nation-leading 4.3% of Montana's GDP coming from the outdoor recreation industry.

"It's just thrilling that this is an annual thing," said Jon Snyder, the recreation policy advisor for Washington Gov. Jay Inslee. "It (provides) a legitimacy for the industry."

In Washington, the loss of jobs is concerning, but not overly so, Snyder said, because it's unlikely a long-term trend. Now the outdoor recreation industry, like many sectors, is scrambling to fill jobs. Nationally, industry leaders painted a rosy picture despite the downturn.

"Despite the pandemic, public lands and water closures, canceled trips and travel, gathering restrictions, supply chain issues and more, the outdoor recreation economy is a huge contributor to national and local economies," said Jessica Turner, president of the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable in a news release. "This data, along with what we have seen throughout the past year and a half, proves how vital continued investments in our public lands and waters and recreation infrastructure are to the national and local economies and how communities big and small, rural and urban, benefit from outdoor recreation."

The report broke outdoor recreation into three categories, which revealed the ways the pandemic impacted recreation.

Those categories were: conventional activities (such as bicycling, boating, hiking and hunting); other core activities (such as gardening and outdoor concerts); and supporting activities (such as construction, travel and tourism, local trips and government expenditures), according to a BEA news release.

In 2020, conventional outdoor recreation accounted for 37.4% of U.S. outdoor recreation value added, compared with 30.6% in 2019. The increase was due to higher spending on boating/fishing and RVing. Other outdoor recreation accounted for 16.8% of value added in 2020, compared with 19.7% in 2019, according to the release. The decrease was driven by amusement parks/water parks and festivals/sporting events/concerts. Supporting activities accounted for the remaining 45.8% of value added in 2020, compared with 49.7% in 2019. Supporting activities, particularly travel and tourism-related activities, declined in 2020 during the pandemic as consumers traveled less and reduced spending at hotels and restaurants.

Snyder emphasized that Washington gathers its own recreation data and uses slightly different metrics. The most recent report was published in 2020 and the next state-specific report will likely come out in five years. He said GDP doesn't include goods made overseas, such as bicycles or e-bikes, which saw a boom in sales during the pandemic.

Snyder hopes the lost jobs are replaced, although he believes the total number may be lower as two part-time jobs become one full-time job. That would mirror a national trend of people

"The total topline number of jobs isn't as important as good-quality jobs," he said.

Snyder also hopes to see the percentage of Washington's GDP coming from outdoor recreation grow, although not significantly.