Trade group pitches outdoor recreation industry as good for what’s ailing the economy

One big side effect of the coronavirus pandemic has been a rush to the great outdoors by people fed up with staying close to home. That’s created an explosion of visits to state and national parks and booming sales of boats, recreational vehicles and bicycles.

And the public’s enthusiasm to get away by heading outside has created a route to economic recovery for the outdoor recreation industry and communities, says a national trade organization that has submitted its ideas to the presidential campaigns.

The Outdoor Recreation Roundtable shared its report A Roadmap for a 21st Century Outdoor Recreation Economy Wednesday with the Donald Trump and Joe Biden campaigns.

“We had talked to both campaigns earlier in the year, before COVID,” said Jessica Turner, (the ORR executive director. “Then everything was on hold for COVID and this document had to sort of sit on ice a little bit. We needed to focus on our businesses and keeping our businesses afloat and safe.”

Then, the ORR took another look at the report to determine how the coronavirus pandemic and recession have altered the economic landscape.

“And also look at how much is really the same, how recreation can be a solution to a lot of the problems,” Turner said.

The industry group, which represents 32 national trade associations, released a survey of members in June that said 79% of the businesses responding had laid off or furloughed employees, 89% had seen sales drop and 89% had experienced problems with production and distribution of products.

The ORR’s suggestions to policy makers for getting the recreation industry back on sound fiscal footing include:

  • Addressing the $20 billion maintenance backlog on public lands and water;
  • Making recreation part of any plans for comprehensive infrastructure improvements;
  • Using veteran and youth conservation corps to build a more diverse outdoor workforce;
  • Promoting technical and vocational training and partnerships with local community colleges and universities.

Before the pandemic, outdoor recreation accounted for 2.2% of the gross domestic product, according to the  U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis in the Commerce Department. It supported 7.6 million direct jobs nationwide and generated $887 billion annually in consumer spending, the Outdoor Industry Association reports.

“We know we were growing faster than the economy as a whole before all of this and we’re seeing people flock to the outdoors like never before,” Turner said. “Our vehicles, gear and equipment are flying off the shelves.”

Fishing license sales are up 10% nationwide and even higher in individual states, based on information from state parks and wildlife agencies, Turner said.

In Colorado, visits to state parks jumped about 18% statewide this spring from last year and nearly 48% in the region that includes the Denver-Boulder metro area and several mountain communities east of the Continental Divide. In June, state parks logged a total of 3.2 million visitors, compared to 2.3 million in June 2019, said Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokesman Travis Duncan.

State park and national forest employees have reported bigger crowds and more problems with litter and vandalism, some of it attributed to first-time visitors to public lands who might be unaware of the rules.

Boat and recreational vehicle dealers are having trouble keeping their showrooms and warehouses stocked, Turner said. The businesses are seeing many new and younger buyers.

That has been the case at the Colorado Boat Center, said Ashley Smith, sales director and co-owner of the family-owned business in Johnstown.

“We’re probably 100% percent up from last year” in sales, Smith said. “In 30 years of  being in business, we’ve never experienced such a low inventory going into a new model year.”

With the pandemic, business could have gone either way, Smith said, with people deciding boats are a luxury item they can do without. Instead, people, many of them first-time customers, are looking for ways to recreate safely.

“From what I’ve experienced, many of them are families who would normally go on vacation during the summer or their kids would be in sports during the summer,” Smith said. “They’re looking for something active to do outside of the house.”

Turner said her organization is stressing that the outdoor recreation industry’s economic benefits have a far reach, extending to many small businesses, rural communities that are home to public lands and waterways and to several states where recreational vehicles and equipment are made. She said more than 90% of both boats and RVs are produced in the U.S.

In the case of the products and parts manufactured in other countries, the recreation industry has advocated lifting the tariffs imposed during the U.S.-China trade war because they are driving up costs for businesses and customers. Turner said while some companies are looking at shifting production to this country, others can’t easily make the change because of a lack of facilities or expertise.

“We rely on a free and fair global supply chain in order to have a stable business environment and that’s been significantly disrupted the past couple of years,” Turner said.

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