How recreation boosts the economy

From travelers to new residents, outdoor enthusiasts make an impact on the West’s bottom lines.


Across the country, the outdoor recreation industry puts millions of people to work and boosts the economy by hundreds of billions of dollars. To cash in on some of that spending, many communities trumpet the recreation opportunities available to visitors, in the hopes that travelers will stay in local hotels, book local tours and dine at local restaurants.

Sources: Headwaters Economics; U.S. Department of Commerce

But do recreation amenities lure new residents — who might bring even more economic benefits — as well as tourists? To find out, Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit research group, looked at where populations have grown or dwindled since 2010. They compared counties where the economy is closely tied to entertainment and seasonal visitors’ spending, or “recreation counties,” to counties with economies driven by other factors.

The number of people who moved to each type of county, and how much money they brought with them, was different at distinct levels of urbanization. Here are some of Headwaters’ results:

Source: Headwaters Economics

Statewide benefits in Montana

The vast majority of Montana’s 1 million residents — 87% — label themselves outdoor enthusiasts. They’re responsible for more than half of the $7.1 billion spent on outdoor activities in the state every year, including rafting or fishing the state’s nearly 170,000 miles of river. Residents and visitors alike are drawn by the natural assets of Big Sky Country: Montana’s booming recreation economy is built around the cornerstone of the 33.8 million acres of public land within its borders.

Even seemingly small recreation areas can have a big impact. The 42-mile Whitefish Trail, sections of which snake around ponds and lakes near the town of Whitefish, contributes $6.4 million to the economy every year. The trail system supports more than one job for every mile of its length,  putting residents to work at local businesses like the Whitefish Bike Retreat, where visitors can rent bicycles, spend the night or arrange for a trail shuttle.

Source: Headwaters Economics

Local benefits in North Idaho

Rural Bonner County, in North Idaho, hosts about 660 miles of trails for biking, hiking, riding ATVs and other activities. The area has a robust recreation culture, which in turn supports gear shops, lodging, restaurants and guide services.

Source: Headwaters Economics

Thumbnail: Outdoor recreation supports a variety of establishments, including Many Glacier Hotel in Glacier National Park, Montana. Credit: Wesley Fryer/CC via Flickr

Luna Anna Archey is the associate photo editor at NewTowncarShare News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. 

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