Surge in outdoor recreation in Colorado last year not enough to offset ski resort closures

Coloradans took to the outdoors in droves last year, escaping the confines of home quarantines, reconnecting with nature and exercising out all hose frustrations. But at the end of the day, all that increased activity, including from out-of-state visitors, couldn’t prevent a steep drop in both spending and employment in the state’s outdoor recreation industry.

Outdoor recreation employment in Colorado dropped from 149,000 in 2019 to 120,000 in 2020, representing a loss of nearly one out of five jobs in that industry, according to an annual study from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. And outdoor recreation’s contribution to Colorado GDP fell 21.3%, from a record $12.2 billion in 2019 to $9.6 billion last year.

“With so much isolation and loss, the outdoors was something we could all turn to in order to connect with our families and friends and maintain physical and mental health,” said Nathan Fey, director of the state’s Outdoor Recreation Industry Office, in a release accompanying the numbers. “Outdoor recreation participation soared, especially close-to-home recreation.”

Spending on bicycling rose by $9.1 million in Colorado, while water sports saw an increase of $13.4 million, and off-roading jumped by $17 million. Spending on recreational vehicles saw a huge surge, $36 million, while spending on lower-cost options such as camping and hiking were up $3.2 million.

Fey said in an email that a $447 million decline in spending on skiing and snowboarding overwhelmed gains elsewhere. Although resort closures came late in the season, they brought spending to a hard stop. Other conventional activities also saw decreases, including fishing, down $11 million, and equestrian activities, down $26 million. Spending on recreational apparel was also down about $161 million.

Support industries linked to recreational activities like tour operators, hotels and restaurants were hit hard, contributing to the declines.

“The increases realized by other conventional activities are not enough to offset the loss to GDP from ski/snowboarding — it is the largest loss to Colorado’s economy due to the pandemic,” Fey said.

Nationally, economic activity tied to outdoor recreation decreased 17.4% between 2019 and 2020, while employment counts decreased by 17.1%. Despite the hit it took, outdoor recreation was responsible for $689 billion in economic output and supported 4.3 million jobs in the U.S. last year, according to the BEA study, which is in its fourth year.

Outdoor recreation and supporting activities represented about 2.5% of Colorado’s GDP last year.

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