Click >>here<< to explore the interactive version of the graph and map. (Source: Headwater Economics)

Earnings from outdoor recreation stumbled a bit in 2020 because of the pandemic, but the sector remained an important part of the U.S. economy, according to a new interactive report from Headwaters Economics.

The gross domestic product from outdoor recreation fell 19% from 2019 to 2020, and employment dropped by about 17%, the report said. But the sector still accounted for $374 billion of gross domestic product last year. That’s more than twice the size of motor vehicle manufacturing, fossil fuel extraction, or air transportation.

The analysis is based on estimates produced by the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) of the U.S. Department of Commerce of the contribution to the economy by outdoor recreation, called the Outdoor Recreation Satellite Account. Dollar values are in terms of the contribution of outdoor recreation to national and state GDP, presented in inflation-adjusted (2020) dollars. 

Megan Lawson, an economist with Headwaters, said the outdoor economy is important to communities across the U.S. 

“The outdoor economy does tend to play a larger role in more rural states that may not have large, economically diverse metropolitan areas,” she said in an email interview with The Daily Yonder. “Rural states also are more likely to have the natural amenities like open spaces and public lands that can support outdoor recreation.”

States that have the largest share of state GDP from outdoor recreation are often in the intermountain West and northeast, like Montana and Wyoming, Vermont, and Maine. States like Hawaii and Florida, extremely popular tourism destinations, also rank very high, she added. 

Lawson said that in 2020, hospitality-related industries like restaurants and accommodations took a big hit due to lockdowns and restrictions. “In 2021, the bigger challenges facing outdoor recreation businesses are likely to be supply chain disruptions and difficulties finding employees,” she said. “These effects likely will be felt throughout the outdoor recreation industry, not just hospitality.”

However, it’s not all bad news, she added. 

“With increased federal money available through the Great American Outdoors Act and infrastructure bill, communities will be able to kickstart efforts to develop the infrastructure to foster an outdoor recreation economy,” Lawson said.

“We recommend that any community considering developing an outdoor recreation economy plan for the likely challenges concurrently. This includes having a plan to address rising housing costs and also a fiscal assessment to ensure that the new tourism dollars coming into a community can generate revenue to pay for the impacts they will have (e.g., wastewater upgrades, road upgrades, etc).”