Out of doors recreation economic system launches sturdy pandemic rebound


Despite challenges related to inflation, the workforce and supply chains, total outdoor recreation spending in North Carolina grew 22.6% from 2020 numbers, beating the national average of 21.7% growth, according to the Outdoor Recreation Satellite Account of BEA. The industry generates 1.8% of North Carolina’s gross domestic product and employs more than 130,000 people. This is 2.7% of North Carolina’s total wage and salary employment and 1.7% of total compensation.

Nationally, outdoor recreation generates $862 billion in economic output, which is 3% of US wage-earning employment and supports more than 4.5 million jobs.

“This new data demonstrates that North Carolina’s outdoor recreation sector continues to be a strong economic force,” said Amy Allison, director of the Made by Mountains Partnership. “By investing in public lands and infrastructure, building outdoor-centric communities, and supporting outdoor recreation businesses and entrepreneurs, we continue to advance North Carolina’s status as the outdoor industry capital of the East.”

Hikers explore a trail in Cherokee. Bear Allison photo

Robust recoil

The new data points to growth in 2021 compared to 2020 figures. However, the industry has yet to fully recover to 2019 levels — either in North Carolina or across the country.

In 2019, the outdoor recreation industry contributed $459 billion to the US economy and $12 billion in North Carolina. Those numbers plummeted in 2020 to $374 billion and $10 billion, respectively, and only partially recovered in 2021, reaching $454 billion statewide and $11.8 billion for North Carolina.

While the 130,000 jobs the industry supported in North Carolina in 2021 is an increase from the 123,000 in the 2020 report, it is significantly less than the nearly 152,000 jobs reported in 2019. Outdoor recreation accounted for 1.8% of jobs this year North Carolina’s total compensation is more than 2021’s 1.7% share.

However, the momentum is now moving in the direction of growth. Inflation-adjusted GDP for the country’s outdoor leisure economy grew 18.9% in 2021, compared to a 5.9% increase for the overall US economy. This reflects a rebound in outdoor leisure after a 21.6% decline in 2020. Real gross output of the outdoor leisure economy increased by 21.7%, while outdoor leisure compensation increased by 16.2% and employment increased by 13.1% compared to 2020.

That upward trend is in full swing in North Carolina, which ranks ninth among all states with 13.8% job growth, beating the state average of 13%. The state also outperformed national averages in compensation with annual growth of 17.2% compared to a national increase of 16.2%.

North Carolina ranks 11th out of the 50 states for the total value that outdoor recreation adds to the state’s economy. That’s a step down from the 10th place that North Carolina maintained in 2019 and 2020, with the demotion being attributed to a surge in Indiana’s outdoor recreation growth. This state ranked 13th in 2019 and 11th in 2020, but rushed forward to claim eighth place in 2021.

North Carolina’s 11th place is roughly in line with its place as the ninth largest state, but its importance in the outdoor recreation economy far exceeds its status as the 29th largest state by land area.

Rafters navigate a section of the French Broad River. French Broad Adventures photo

Keep the growth going

There’s no question that the mountain region is a major contributor to North Carolina’s outdoor economy. The region includes two of the national park system’s most-visited units — the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway — as well as the Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests, some of the US Forest Service’s most-visited areas.

National parks — primarily the Smokies and Parkway — contributed $2.6 billion to the state’s economy in 2021, according to a report by the US Park Service and US Geological Survey. Park visitors spent $1.7 billion in local gateway cities, and that spending supported nearly 25,000 jobs, $871 million in earned income and $1.4 billion in value creation, with $2.6 billion in economic output of North Carolina’s economy.

But the other regions of the country also attract outdoor enthusiasts. The coastal region offers a wealth of beach and sea recreation opportunities and is home to the Croatan National Forest, while Piedmont is home to the Uwharrie National Forest. State parks, wildlife areas, and other public lands can be found throughout the state.

According to BEA data, North Carolina saw tremendous growth in value creation from RV use between 2020 and 2021, with a 20% increase and, unsurprisingly, an even greater increase in value creation from festivals and amusement parks compared to 2020, as pandemic restrictions were in full force. Festivals, sporting events and concerts contributed almost 50% more to the economy in 2021 than in 2020, with amusement parks and water parks seeing a 44% increase.

“Traditional” outdoor leisure activities like biking, boating, hiking and hunting saw a more modest 17% year-over-year increase, but these activities have been less affected by pandemic restrictions. Supportive activities such as construction, travel and tourism, local travel and government spending increased by 21%.

Biking, boating and fishing, canoeing and kayaking, hiking and camping, hunting, shooting and trapping, and other outdoor recreation activities have all seen steady growth in economic impact and participation year over year, Allison said. These include impressive gains from 2020-2021 as access, opportunity and outdoor investment nationwide expanded.

Founded in 2021, Made By Mountains is a partnership focused on the western portion of the state’s outdoor economy, working to expand that sector of the economy throughout North Carolina’s Appalachian Region and enhance regional development by building vibrant communities, to catalyze the growth of the outdoor industry and the strengthening of the region’s storytelling.

It is currently in the middle of a two-year program called Building Outdoor Communities, which aims to help individual communities foster collaboration and expertise to achieve their goals in the outdoor economy. More than 130 people from 25 western counties gathered in Boone in September for a kick-off event. Now the counties have been divided into three cohorts, which will spend the coming years understanding what their outdoor-based economy needs to function and how to put those pieces together. Allison anticipates the effort will extend beyond the first two years — which she sees as the first step in an ongoing process to support WNC communities as they “connect the dots between trail and economic development.”

“The Made By Mountains partnership will continue to work to support the growth of the outdoor recreation economy so the outdoor sector remains a pillar of the region’s economic prosperity,” she said. “Access to public lands is fundamental to economic vitality and the health and well-being of communities and residents. Outdoor recreation continues to be a driver for entrepreneurship, people development, talent retention and recruitment, and the development of thriving outdoor recreation communities.”

Based on the numbers

• $11.8 billion in economic value from NC’s outdoor recreation industry in 2021

• 130,000 jobs supported by the NC leisure industry in 2021

• 11th largest outdoor recreation value of any US state in 2021

• Inflation-adjusted growth of 18.9% for the US leisure economy in 2021

• 5.9% inflation-adjusted growth for the US economy as a whole in 2021

• Outdoor leisure economy down 21.6% in 2020

Source: US Bureau of Economic Analysis 2021 Outdoor Recreation Satellite Account. Learn more at bea.gov/news/2022/outdoor-recreation-satellite-account-us-and-states-2021.