Villagers help make outdoors lucrative

Christine Borgmeyer rides ahead of Bob Cates as a group takes a ride along Hogeye Preserve Pathway.

Nature remains a money-maker. As people continue to prefer outdoor experiences to pass the time through the COVID-19 pandemic, new government data and industry observations suggest this trend will continue. The Bureau of Economic Analysis recently issued new data on the nation’s outdoor recreation economy, which found it responsible for $459.8 billion of gross domestic product in the U.S., including

$49 billion in Florida, in 2019. And a trend report from the National Recreation and Park Association suggests the renewed interest in parks, trails and walkable areas will endure beyond the pandemic. Villagers see being outdoors as favorable for social distancing.

Activities like canoeing and kayaking generally give distance beyond the 6-foot minimum advised by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Linda Morrison, a volunteer at Lake Griffin State Park and member of The Villages Canoe and Kayak Club.

“If it’s a small boat ramp and we have a group, we wear masks while we’re unloading our boats from our cars and while we’re setting up our equipment,” said Morrison, of the Village of St. James. “Once we’re on the water, we remove the masks.”

Boating and fishing activities — not limited to but including kayaking — generated the greatest economic impact among outdoor activities, with a gross output of about $41 billion nationwide, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Activities popular in The Villages were lucrative: about $34 billion from game areas like golf courses and tennis courts, about $34 billion in recreational vehicle travel, and about $27 billion from guided tours like those offered by The Villages Recreation & Parks Department along Lake Sumter.

Florida’s $49 billion in gross domestic product from outdoor recreation is second highest in the nation, behind only California, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Outdoor recreation was responsible for 4.4% of Florida’s domestic product in 2019, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. That’s the fourth highest percentage in the nation, trailing Hawaii, Vermont and Montana.

At places like Silver Springs State Park in Ocala, which preserves America’s largest spring and is known for its glass-bottom boat rides that were among Florida’s first tourist attractions, park staff see the venues they operate as very important for their role in providing people with outdoor spaces.

“(It’s) just having a communal place where people can relax and enjoy the outdoors and explore some of what Florida used to be in the time of Hernando de Soto,” said Andy Kilmer, a park services specialist at Silver Springs. “This is an opportunity for people to see what their ancestors may have seen when they came to Florida for the first time.”

Baby Boomers play a role statewide and nationwide based on Villagers’ involvement in some of the most economically important activities, said Taylor Stein, a professor of forest resources at the University of Florida who has expertise in ecotourism.

Their high level of interest in outdoor activities predated the pandemic, with Villagers like Morrison appreciating nature for being “a great healer” and a way of relieving stress and tension.

“It reminds us that there’s a great, beautiful world out there,” she said. “While you’re paddling, you’re not listening to, watching or reading a constant stream of bad news, controversy, uncertainty. You’re watching the sky, the forest (and) the water.”

One observation Morrison made may explain why Florida’s economy depends on the outdoors.

In contrast with winter weather states, there are very few days where the weather is too uncomfortable to get outside.

Senior writer Michael Salerno can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5369, or michael.salerno@thevillagesmedia.com.​

Read this story and many others in Friday’s edition of the Daily Sun.