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Outdoor Recreation Tourism: The Motor Driving Rural Economies of the Future?

October 2, 2019

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in Expansion Solutions in the September/October 2019 edition.


Many medical experts tout the benefits of getting outside on a regular basis, but have you ever considered the potential benefits of focusing your economic development efforts outside as well? It may not be a bad idea considering that the United States has seen an increase in overall participation in outdoor recreation activities, typically categorized as motorized or non-motorized, over the past few decades.

While non-motorized outdoor recreation activities like hiking and biking are well documented and studied in relation to growth, economic impact, attraction strategies, and the benefits to communities; motorized outdoor recreation activities are generally thought of as a smaller component of the overall industry and are somewhat less studied. As more rural communities begin to promote outdoor recreation tourism as a component of their economic development strategies, it is increasingly important to understand the full spectrum of opportunities related to outdoor tourism, including those within the motorized recreation sectors, and how best to encourage and support their growth.

Background on Outdoor Recreation and Tourism Trends

Over the last few decades, many nature based outdoor recreation activities have trended upward in regard to interest and overall participation. An interesting study was published by USDA in 2016 on outdoor recreation trends and concluded that between 1999 and 2009, there was a 7.1% increase in the number of participants and number of activity days of participation. During this timeframe, kayaking saw the largest increase with over 100% increase in the number of participants, followed by off-highway vehicle driving (34.5%), waterskiing (33.1%), and viewing/photographing flowers (29.4%).[1]

In addition to overall interest and participation, many people don’t quite realize the significant role that these industries are playing in today’s marketplace from a revenue standpoint. For example, in the United States the tourism industry  (including more than just related to outdoor recreation) currently produces upward of $932.6 billion in revenue and supports over $188.0 billion in wages annually. With tourism in the United States also being projected to grow at an annualized rate of 1.8% from 2019 to 2022[2], we may see these numbers continue to rise in the coming years. There is also revenue upside to be gained in indirect markets such as trade shows and conferences. For example, in 2018 the City of Denver lobbied hard for and was selected as the host of the big three Outdoor Retailer trade shows (some of the country’s largest gatherings of outdoor recreation industry retailers) which is estimated to generate a total economic impact of about $110 million dollars per year with 85,000 annual attendees according to numbers provided by Outdoor Retailer.

From a consumer standpoint, travelers are embracing experiences that are based in and highlight local features and cultures, and the tourism market is evolving to incorporate these experiences into aspects of more traditional traveling. Some of this change can be accredited to demographic shifts/trends and the coming of age of millennials who have more disposable income, have begun to anchor more of an experience based economy, value environmental conservation efforts, and who tend to travel more at a younger age compared to previous generations. In addition, outdoor recreation encompasses a variety of different activities, price points, physical requirements, and time commitments that can cater to a large and diverse consumer market of all different ages and interests. For example, growth in photography and viewing of nature related activities is likely being driven by a combination of an aging population that can no longer keep up with more physically demanding outdoor activities, and a younger population who have more accessible camera options and an interest in photography based social media platforms. For both groups an authentic experience is critical and increasingly being found through tour guides, house sharing versus a traditional hotel, and more diverse and interactive activities becoming more readily available. Destinations and businesses that can promise travelers quality customized experiences with these aspects in mind could afford to prosper significantly in this new age of outdoor recreational tourism.

Motorized Recreation Industry

The motorized recreation industry typically includes off-highway vehicles like snowmobiles and ATVs that offer an alternative to hiking, biking, birding, etc. Traditionally, there has been less focus on the motorized industry compared to the non-motorized industry and many would be surprised to find that the ATV, Golf Cart, and Snowmobile Manufacturing industries have been on about a 1% annual growth trajectory for the last five years generating nearly $10 billion in revenue per year [3]. These numbers are expected to grow in the coming years. Similarly, recreational vehicles (RV’s) offer an alternative lodging option and can play a role in a community’s strategy to attract more visitors. While these numbers point to potential opportunities in the future, it’s important to keep in mind that the strength of these industries, especially the manufacturing sector, are closely tied to key economic indicators including levels of disposable income, general consumer confidence, the overall US economy, interest rates, and amount of time people have to spend on leisure activities.

Snowmobile and ATV

Sometimes called “power sports”, the snowmobile and ATV markets have to contend with a number of factors that are outside of consumer or producer control, like climate change and land use policies. With snowfall generally expected to decrease over the next 70 years, participating in snowmobiling is likely to decrease in many areas of the country and many manufacturers are worried about how that will impact revenue over the short and long term. Additionally, limited ATV access on national park lands make it difficult to create integrated trail networks that appeal to a variety of users.

Conflicts between motorized and non-motorized recreation enthusiasts throughout the country have also been problematic and have led to some disputes as each party wants to see more of the types of trails and environment that suits their preference. A survey published in The Journal of Park and Recreation Administration found that motorized and nonmotorized trail users have similar desires related to having access to the types of trails that will meet their needs, and both groups feel strongly that there should be separation of activities. In other words, there is recognition of the importance of both types of recreation, but most prefer not to have one to coexist on one trail. [4] Finding places to ride snowmobiles and ATVs that offers a variety of landscape/scenery and attractions/destinations is also important to recreationalists and there are lobbying organizations that are working to increase access to trails in national parks. Expanding trail access, continuing to reduce emissions, and making full networks of trails will support industry growth in the coming years.

Recreation Vehicles

The recreation vehicle industry was once thought of as only for older people, but the trend in recent years is that demand is increasing from all sectors and demographics. In fact, RV shipments are experiencing their 8th consecutive year of gains. Over the last five years the industry saw nearly 8% annual growth (2013-2018) and that growth is expected to continue through 2023, at a slower rate of nearly 2% per year.[5] The primary customer continues to be those over 50 year old, but there are new customers that are younger, more technologically savvy, and who are demanding smaller units that can be towed behind a standard minivan or SUV. Millennials are a major market for RV companies, with data suggesting that millennials make up 38% of total US campers but only 31% of total population. With millennials’ well documented desire to have more authentic, real, and experiential vacations, RVing offers a chance to tour the country in a way that can be customized more to the individual or family. Also in a bid to attract millennials and older generations, the RV market continues to see innovations in design to make the product more comfortable, accessible, and appealing to a wider market. With amenities like Wi-Fi, television, and improvements at campgrounds around the country, RV’s are becoming a strong alternative to more traditional lodging or camping options. [6]

Economic Developer Recommendations

Motorized outdoor recreation can play a strong role in a community’s overall tourism strategy and there are a number of tactics to encouraging the growth of motorized recreation.

Address motorized vs non-motorized conflicts – Economic developers should play a role in facilitating conversations that encourage open discussions between advocates for these two types of activities and work to find common ground and compromises that will leave both parties feeling satisfied. Having more than one type of recreation option available makes a community much more attractive to the traveling family who may have members with varying interest. Continue to promote outdoor recreation assets of all kinds as a factor in raising the quality of life and promoting the community to attract workforce.

Enhance online promotion and maps – Conduct an audit and update of any online materials, including information about lodging and listing local amenities while also providing maps. Having easily accessible websites that provide the information in a clear, fun, and welcoming way is important to attracting visitors. Provide cross links between partner organizations like trail associations, chambers of commerce, economic development offices, and local municipal sites. The Androscoggin Valley Chamber of Commerce (New Hampshire) does a great job of highlighting the ATV assets of the regional communities and attracting recreational enthusiasts to visit and live.

Support related small businesses, entrepreneurs, and workforce development – Having the right businesses in place to serve the visitors is important to creating a welcoming environment for groups to return time after time.  Providing financial incentives, technical training, joint marketing, and other support for entrepreneurs who are looking to serve the motorized recreation industry should be prioritized. Various types of establishments like repair shops, transport services, storage, and cleaning are all needed small businesses that can support the industry and create jobs. Additionally, local partners can provide workforce development training related to mechanical skills and other trades to help local residents capitalize on new opportunities that arise.

Be the most comfortable and easiest location – As more communities look to attract outdoor recreation dollars, there will be an increasing need to stand out as the “best” and make the decision easy for visitors. Working with local business to be welcoming to motorized recreation participants and ensuring there is adequate and attractive lodging options is an important first step. Other steps that public entities can do include build comfort stations, make Wi-Fi accessible, review local regulations about parking and where the vehicle can be, and help build up the industry through issues they have control over.

As rural communities continue to look for ways to diversify their economy and support local residents and businesses it is natural for them to want to pursue the outdoor recreation industry. Finding ways to build up the supporting infrastructure, expand networks and systems, and provide clear marketing and promotion are all important steps to moving in that direction.




Andereck, K. L., Vogt, C. A., Larkin, K., & Freye, K. (2001). Differences Between Motorized and Nonmotorized Trail Users. The Journal of Park and Recreation Administration. Retrieved June 26, 2019, from https://js.sagamorepub.com/jpra/article/view/1567

Gernon, D. (2017, July 28). ‘The RV space is on fire’: Millennials expected to push sales to record highs. CNBC. Retrieved June 24, 2019, from https://www.cnbc.com/2017/07/28/the-rv-space-is-on-fire-millennials-expe…

IBIS World. (2019). ATV, Golf Cart & Snowmobile Manufacturing.

IBIS World. (2019). Recreational Vehicle Manufacturing.

IBIS World. (2019). Tourism in the US.

White, E. M., Bwoker, J., Askew, A. E., Langner, L. L., Arnold, J. R., & English, D. B. (2016). Federal Outdoor Recreation Trends: Effects on Economic Opportunities. United States Department of Agriculture. Retrieved June 24, 2019, from https://www.fs.fed.us/pnw/pubs/pnw_gtr945.pdf