The outdoor recreation industry is an economic powerhouse, contributing $412 billion (2.2 percent) of total U.S. Gross Domestic Product in 2016, a new report released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) reveals. In the same year, the industry outpaced the growth of the overall U.S. economy and was responsible for employing some 4.55 million people.
This marks the first time government economists have ever evaluated the role of outdoor recreation alongside other key industries that contribute to U.S. GDP, the total value of finished goods and services produced within the country. The results show that the outdoor industry is larger than agriculture, which accounted for 1 percent of the economy in 2016, and mining, which accounted for 1.4 percent.
Ardent supporters of the outdoors celebrated the results on Thursday and emphasized their significance beyond numbers on a page. “As advocates for the outdoors, we can use this data to make the case that, as the government thinks about its spending priorities, it does not lose sight of the fact that outdoor recreation is good for the country in so many different ways, ” said Marc Berejka, director of government and community affairs for REI.
Outdoor Industry Association Government Affairs Manager Jessica Wahl echoed that sentiment: “Being counted as one of the official sectors elevates things to a whole new level. … When you align policy with that, I think it can be pretty powerful.”
Name an outdoor activity and it’s likely the BEA included it in its analysis of how outdoor recreation ripples throughout the economy. The bureau looked at the economic impact of human-powered adventures like hiking and camping, sports like golf and tennis, motorized activities like motorcycling and RVing, and more. Gross output or total sales and revenue associated with outdoor recreation reached $734 billion in 2016. Boating and fishing—the largest activity category the BEA evaluated—accounted for $36.9 billion of that sum. But Americans appear to love diverse outdoor pursuits. Multi-use gear and apparel came in as one of the largest segments, generating nearly $89 billion in gross receipts.
“Outdoor recreation is part of growing up and living in America, and we’re finding that those activities contribute substantially to the economic health and vibrancy of the country,” Berejka said.
The BEA report is a result of the Outdoor Recreation Jobs and Economic Impact Act of 2016. It follows a broader movement to better quantify the impact of the outdoor economy in recent years led by the trade group for the outdoor industry, the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA).
Since 2006, the OIA has been measuring the size of the outdoor economy. Its latest report suggests the industry drove $887 billion in consumer spending and provided some 7.6 million American jobs in 2016.
The BEA and OIA reports differ, in part, because they used distinct methods to collect and assess their data. Part of the BEA’s annual task is to determine how U.S. industries contribute to GDP. The BEA pulled data from its comprehensive study in 2016 to determine the value that outdoor recreation added to the U.S. economy. Calculations excluded costs of energy and labor and were based on spending and production in the United States rather than contributions from countries overseas. An initial report was released in February 2018, which the bureau updated based on public feedback, including comments from outdoor recreation experts.
The OIA distributed a survey and collected data from consumers across the United States to determine total spending on outdoor-related gear and travel in 2016. In addition to generating millions of jobs, the $887 billion Americans spent on outdoor recreation generated $124.5 billion in federal, state and local tax revenue that year.
Students of the reports warn against making an apples-to-apples comparison. Although gross output might sound a bit like consumer spending, the two are different calculations. As the OIA notes, “Both are true, they just measure different economic contributors.”
Outdoor advocates say the BEA results this week were validating. “For a long time, there have been a lot of players at the table and recreation just hasn’t been one of [them],” Wahl said. “I think this [report] continues to elevate us to the point where you sort of have us at the table if we’re 2.2 percent of the economy.”
Representatives of the outdoor recreation industry are hopeful the BEA will be able to continue this work, which is contingent upon the funding of its fiscal year 2019 budget. In the next iteration, Berejka and Wahl hope to see an assessment of recreation economies at the state level. “Looking into the future, I think there’s reason to be very optimistic that we’ll continue to understand more deeply the economic contribution [of the outdoor recreation sector], whether it’s at the state, local or federal level,” Berejka said. “That will help us on our long-term quest to have government at all levels provide outdoor places and public lands the support they need so that all Americans have ample opportunities to get outside.”
Editor’s note: REI is a member of the Outdoor Industry Association. REI helped fund the OIA Outdoor Recreation Economy Report, in partnership with other outdoor retailers, manufacturers and organizations, in 2006, 2012 and 2017.