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

Nicole Blanchard, The Idaho Statesman on

Published in Outdoors

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%.


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