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Nevada’s outdoor recreation industry poised for a comeback

By Stephanie Forté

When athletes medal at the Olympics after what seemed a career-ending injury, people jump to their feet and cheer. Everyone loves a good comeback.

Nevada’s outdoor recreation industry is like a rising star athlete, one of our state’s fastest-growing economic generators, critical to our economic diversification. Yet the pandemic left many outdoor recreation businesses severely wounded. The good news is Nevada has a massive opportunity, and if we play our cards right, we can come out ahead.

During the pandemic, Americans flocked to the outdoors for solace. Early data reports issued in February from the Outdoor Foundation show 52.9% of Americans engaged in outdoor recreation in 2020, an uptick of more than 7 million people over 2019. This is the most significant annual increase since the organization started tracking data. With millions of additional outdoor enthusiasts nationwide, Nevada’s outdoor recreation economy has the chance to rise from ashes and contribute even more than its prior $12.6 billion in annual consumer spending, $5.5 billion in economic activity, nearly 60,000 jobs, and millions in tax revenues.

Our state’s abundance of public lands set the perfect stage for outdoor recreation. They make Nevada’s urban centers and rural communities attractive for adventure-seeking visitors. In fact, in 2019, more than 14 million people visited Nevada’s public lands and state parks. Today we have an even larger audience, so Nevada needs to be ready to engage tourists to uplift businesses that suffered in the pandemic, so we reach new levels of economic success.

Recently, Get Outdoors Nevada and the Nevada Outdoor Business Coalition released a report conducted by Denver-based BBC Research and Consulting on the pandemic’s impact on Nevada’s outdoor recreation economy. It looks at 14 diverse Nevada businesses, and the results show the good, the devastating, and the opportunity ahead.

According to the report, Nevada’s outdoor recreation economy lost about 6% of its jobs during the pandemic. Tour companies that rely on out-of-state guests cut staff by up to 70%, as hotels were left vacant and transportation operators saw their businesses plummet. Yet businesses serving locals grew: Las Vegas Cyclery sold through a year’s worth of inventory in three months, and a boat rental company couldn’t hire fast enough to meet demand.

The report also illustrates the creativity among our outdoor recreation business owners, quick pivots, and outside-the-box thinking that helped some weather the storm. Still, in many cases, increased local spending and efforts to survive weren’t enough to offset the losses from Nevada’s decline of 13.7 million visitors. Up to 27% of our small businesses closed.

When athletes come back from the brink, their support network is a big factor. In Nevada, we have a team of leaders who understand what’s at stake for our outdoor recreation economy. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto leads the public lands subcommittee while Sen. Jacky Rosen chairs the tourism subcommittee. On the state level, we have Assemblywoman Cecelia Gonzalez, the champion of Nevada’s 30 by 30 resolution — our state’s commitment to the global initiative to protect 30% of land and water by 2030. Nevada’s resolution specifically mentions the importance of protecting areas like the proposed Avi Kwa Ame National Monument in Clark County. Protecting public lands means more space preserved for outdoor recreation.

As we move forward, we must make Nevada’s outdoor recreation industry a priority, as baked into our economy as it is in neighboring states like Utah and Colorado. It’s already become an essential part of our lifestyle. We must invest in creating the infrastructure so our managed outdoor recreation experiences protect the environment while offering residents and guests unique outdoor opportunities.

With support from lawmakers and tourism agencies, Nevada’s outdoor recreation economy is poised for the kind of comeback that makes people leap to their feet in celebration.

Stephanie Forté is a longtime Las Vegas resident and president of Nevada Outdoor Business Coalition.