Outdoor recreation skyrocketed in 2020, but Idaho’s industry lost money, employees

Drew Nash

By most metrics, like trail use, state park visits and campsite reservations, the COVID-19 pandemic boosted outdoor recreation in Idaho substantially. But a recent economic analysis shows despite the uptick in visits and activity, several key benchmarks took a hit in the Gem State and across the U.S. last year.

Revenues from the national outdoor recreation industry fell about $77.6 billion, according to a Bureau of Economic Analysis report released in November. Adjusted for inflation, that’s a 19% drop from 2019 to $331.8 billion last year. Analysts attributed much of the decline to COVID-19 and resulting stay-at-home orders.

But Idaho, which counts outdoor recreation as one of its “key industries,” fared slightly better than the national average.

Matt Borud, marketing and innovation administrator for the Idaho Department of Commerce, said Idaho may have fared better than other Western states because of what it lacked — strict COVID-19 lockdowns as well as a single major tourism driver, like a national park. For instance, Borud said, when Yellowstone closed lodging options, it likely sent travelers to Idaho.

In states where major destinations closed or didn’t allow lodging last year, “that was a big hit,” Borud said by phone. “And Idaho doesn’t have that sort of dependency.”

Many Idaho visitors also arrive via car rather than air travel, which may have helped Idaho’s tourism stay more consistent, Borud said.

Idaho’s outdoor rec fares better than neighbors

The outdoor recreation industry nationwide last year accounted for 1.8% of the U.S. gross domestic product, down from 2.2% in 2019.

Employment in outdoor recreation took a similar hit and dropped 17.1%. Idaho’s outdoor recreation employment fell by 15.6% in 2020.

In Idaho, industry setbacks were similar to the national average, though not quite as extreme. Where the U.S. outdoor recreation industry’s value-added to GDP fell 19.5%, Idaho’s dropped only 10.3%.

Other Western states, including Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and Montana saw their metrics drop more sharply. Wyoming’s Outdoor employment alone fell nearly one-quarter in both Wyoming and Colorado from the previous year. In Colorado and Wyoming, the decline in value-added to the economy was twice the 10.3% decline Idaho saw. Montana and Utah also saw worse decreases than Idaho.

Not all measures fell. Some Bureau of Economic Analysis data reflected the increase in outdoor recreation activities. In particular, using RVs and ATVs, fishing, camping, climbing and bicycling all jumped in popularity.

Revenue from snow sports — like skiing, snowboarding and snowshoeing — dropped, though that may be linked to early closures in 2019-20 season as COVID-19 first spread.

Idaho poised for robust recovery

Despite the decline in outdoor recreation revenue last year, outdoor experts see a bright future for the industry in Idaho.

The state saw a record 7.7 million park visits last year, said Craig Quintana, spokesperson for Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation. That record is poised to stand even after a busy 2021 season, Quintana said. Parks officials are hopeful 2022 will be another record-setting year.

“BEA has only been measuring the outdoor industry for the last few years,” said Skylar Jett, executive director of Idaho Business for the Outdoors, in an email. “I think in Idaho it will continue to be one of the top industries in the state and will become increasingly important. I think there is huge potential for more outdoor recreational opportunities especially in our rural communities.”

Borud said it can be difficult to reconcile the economic decline with skyrocketing participation in outdoor activities. The boom in participation during the COVID-19 pandemic could mean outdoor recreation has a larger audience in the future, he said. That could translate to more tourism for Idaho.

“I’m really optimistic that people who have gained exposure to outdoor activities via COVID (will continue it),” Borud said. “Maybe it wasn’t something they’d ever considered before. Maybe they would’ve gone to Disneyland, but now they’re going on a rafting trip in Idaho.”

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