Outdoor recreation makes up 2% of U.S. GDP, is ‘big business,’ says Arkansas official

by Jennifer Joyner ([email protected]) 760 views 

Outdoor recreation spending accounted for 2% of the GDP – or $374 billion – in 2016, according to data released Wednesday (Feb. 14) by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis.

That year, the outdoor recreation economy showed faster growth than the overall U.S. economy, increasing 3.8%, versus a 2.8% uptick in the overall economy, according to the new BEA report. It’s the first time the bureau released federal statistics on outdoor recreation as its own category within the GDP. BEA also has expanded in the last two years its offerings for information on spending related to travel and tourism, in addition to arts and cultural production.

Heather Huckeba, research project coordinator for the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, said the federal data that will be now available on the outdoor recreation economy is beneficial. Tourism plays a key role in economic development, and outdoor recreation is a big part of that in Arkansas, Huckeba said.

“Everyone sort of intuitively knows this is big business, but until you see how many industries it touches, it’s hard to see much depth goes into it,” Huckeba said. “It’s easy to think with economic development we need to attract a new tech firm or a new manufacturing plant. But there are so many economic activities under outdoor entertainment. That can be low-hanging fruit, and it all adds up.”

On a national level, conventional core outdoor activities in 2016 accounted for 37% of the total gross output associated with the outdoor recreational spending. Those activities include bicycling, boating, hiking, hunting and others. Other core activities – a category which includes agritourism and outdoor festivals – accounted for 22%, and supporting activities made up 41%.

Motorized vehicles showed the largest activity within conventional outdoor recreation, accounting for $59.4 billion of gross output. Recreational vehicles accounted for more than half of this value at $30 billion. Huckeba said one reason motorized vehicles resulted in the most spending nationwide is because it includes the purchase of expensive vehicles, include motorcycles, ATVs and RVs.

Still, it’s an important tourism draw in the state, she said. RV camping, for example, is accessible throughout Arkansas, including in its 52 state parks.

“People are increasingly recognizing that we have great motorcycling roads here, and are more accessible to a large part of the middle of the country,” compared to famous destinations like the Tail of the Dragon in the eastern U.S., Huckeba said.

Boating and fishing activities resulted in $38.2 billion in receipts nationwide for 2016, showing a 4% increase from the previous year, and hunting, shooting and trapping activities were $15.4 billion, with hunting accounting for 60% of that value.

Arkansas has 9,700 miles of fishable streams and rivers and 600,000 acres of lakes and several million acres of public lands for hunting wildlife, according to the tourism website.

Keith Stephens, communications chief for Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, touted hunting and fishing as boons to the state. He said outdoor recreation is a $1.8 billion industry in the state, according to a 2013 report by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.

“Revenue from hunting and fishing license sales – along with the one-eighth-cent conservation sales tax – all play a huge role in keeping the Natural State true to its name,” he said. “Arkansas residents have major interests in the outdoors. It’s really part of our DNA as Arkansans.”

On the national level, general outdoor gear and apparel accounted for 35% of conventional outdoor recreation gross output nationwide, showing a 7% increase from the previous year, according to BEA. That includes backpacks, bug spray and other general-purpose gear and accessories that could not be allocated to specific activities.

Mountain biking and road cycling have become increasingly popular activities in Arkansas, as new trails and amenities are added – with many cycling-related projects funded by the Walton Family Foundation of Bentonville.

“Excitement is growing all across the state,” said tourism director Jim Dailey.

Bentonville hosted the International Mountain Biking Association World Summit in 2016 and will be one of three cities in the U.S. to host an Outerbike mountain biking demo event in October. Hot Springs has begun construction on Phase One of a 45-mile mountain biking trails system. Portions of the Delta Heritage Trail in eastern Arkansas are in various stages of completion, adding to the network connecting areas of the state and ultimately crossing the Mississippi River, Dailey said. In central Arkansas, the planned Southwest Trail a 65-mile path from Little Rock to Hot Springs, will be a key development, he said.

“The overriding phrase is quality of life,” Dailey said. “It is that type of quality of life amenity that attracts millennials and attracts business, because their employees feel good about being here and staying here.”

At the same time, Arkansas tourism and outdoor recreation go hand-in-hand, he said.

“We’re fast becoming kind of a playground state,” said Joe Jacobs, marketing and revenue manager for Arkansas State Parks. “We’ve always considered ourselves a playground for Texas, now we’ve really grown into our own as more of a playground for the entire country.”

The area is getting better known for its assets, including the Buffalo National River, trails and state parks, he said.

“From a state park standpoint, we’ve become well-known as a good stopping point for Midwesterners – snowbirds, as we sometimes call them – heading into southeast Texas for camping,” Jacobs said, citing the high quality of the state’s campgrounds as the draw.

In Arkansas, individuals are not just using the outdoor recreational amenities, and they’re not just buying and using boats, RVs and bicycles, Jacobs said. They’re manufacturing outdoor equipment, too.

For example, the town of Flippin has for the last 50 years been home to a major U.S. bass boat company, Ranger Boats, and Allied Cycle Works now makes carbon fiber bikes in Little Rock, shipping them all over the world and making national headlines.

A booming outdoor recreation sector brings in related businesses, but it also touches other industries. The BEA report includes a feature showing how an industry’s participation in the outdoor recreation economy contributes to its GDP. For example, in the retail trade industry, outdoor recreation’s value added was $81.7 billion and accounted for 22% of all activity in the outdoor recreation economy.

For food, lodging and accommodations, the value added was $55.7 billion, with 63% coming from lodging and 37% from food and beverage services, according to BEA. Outdoor recreation value added for manufacturing was $51.3 billion, primarily reflecting activity in the subcategories of petroleum and coal products and other transportation equipment, according to the report.

Outdoor recreation value added was $47.4 billion in arts, entertainment, and recreation, which accounted for about one-quarter of that industry’s total value added.

U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said newly available data will be beneficial to the industry.

“Businesses need the right data to help them hire, invest and grow,” he said in the BEA press release. “The historical lack of detailed federal data regarding outdoor recreational activities has handicapped both the private and public sectors. … The public will no doubt be surprised at the economic importance of this industry as we release prototype statistics measuring the impact of activities like boating, fishing, RVing, hunting, camping, hiking, and more.”

In absence of federal data in the past, the Outdoor Industry Association commissioned its own report, and last year it showed consumer spending around outdoor recreation totaled $887 billion.

OIA’s data showed the outdoor recreation economy in Arkansas generated $9.7 billion in consumer spending, 96,000 direct jobs, $2.5 billion in wages and salaries and $698 million in state and local tax revenue. The OIA report and the BEA report, according to BEA public affairs specialist Thomas Dail, have different results because they use separate methodologies. The OIA looks at all related spending, whereas BEA is looking at value added to the GDP.

Also, BEA’s measure includes transportation and accommodation costs only for long-distance trips, more than 50 miles from home. Travel expenses include food and beverages, lodging, transportation – including gasoline – and souvenirs and shopping.

Another difference in the two reports is the treatment of imported goods and services, Dail said. BEA’s measure focuses on domestic production and excludes imported goods and services, except for the sale and transport of those goods once they’re in the U.S.