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Why did the outdoor economy suffer in 2020 when more of us were outside?

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Robin Graven-Milne, owner of Bike Plant, repairs a bike tire at the Bike Plant bike shop in the Bedford–Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn borough in June in New York City.

More Americans got out and about biking, fishing and hiking amid COVID-19 in 2020. Above, a bike shop owner repairs a tire in Brooklyn. Michael M. Santiago via Getty Images

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2020 was … well, it was a lot of things. It was also the year that a lot of us got outside and did socially distanced activities, like biking, fishing, boating and camping.

The Outdoor Industry Association says 7 million more people took part in at least one outdoor activity last year than did so the year before.

But, even so, the gross domestic product for the outdoor recreation economy dropped 19%, according to new data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

If you were one of the millions of people who tried to buy a bike or a kayak or go to a national park last year, it might be surprising to hear that the outdoor recreation industry had a rough 2020, according to Jessica Turner at the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable.

“RV, you know — you couldn’t find one. Boat — still can’t find one. Bikes — sold out. You know, camping — fully crowded. So when you’re seeing and hearing those things, you’re saying, “What’s going on here?'” she said.

What’s going on is that the outdoor industry includes all sorts of businesses that were hit hard by the pandemic, said Axie Navas, director of New Mexico’s Outdoor Recreation Division.

“We were dealing with public lands closures, supply chain disruptions, travel restrictions, huge impact on transportation and warehousing, so that’s part of the story,” she said.

The other, more positive part of the story, she said, is that so many more people did start getting outside.

As soon as David Leinweber was allowed to reopen his fly fishing shop, Angler’s Covey in Colorado Springs, “we had unbelievable amount of business just piled up on us.” People wanted to buy gear and go out on guided trips. “Fly fishing is the ultimate social distancing thing, right?”

Biking is, too. Dale Davis also saw sales spike last spring at his bike shop, 505 Cycles, in Farmington, New Mexico. At the time, “I really believed that what we would see would be like a New Year’s Eve resolution type effect,” he said — people buying bikes and never really using them. Instead?

“You’re seeing all those people come back into the store and buying more gear to go along with it, or upgrading their bike, saying, ‘Man, I fell in love with this so much,'” Davis said.

It’s been a good year, he said. And, if not for supply chain issues, it would have been even better.

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