Vegas’ outdoor recreation economy booming post-pandemic

Originally published in the Las Vegas Review Journal December 14, 2023

Las Vegas is known across the globe for its gaming and tourism industry but one often overlooked facet of the economy, outdoor recreation, is climbing quickly.

“You don’t really see Las Vegas as an outdoor recreation town, but as soon as you start looking, we do have tremendous access to outdoor recreation,” said Dan Hooper, general manager of Lee Canyon, a resort that offers skiing and snowboarding in the winter and hiking and mountain biking in the summer. It’s about 53 miles away from the Strip.

From rock climbing and hiking to skiing and ATV riding, outdoor recreation in Nevada contributed roughly $6.1 billion to the state’s economy in 2022, a 25.3 percent increase from the previous year, according to estimates from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. That’s beyond any bump outdoor activity saw during the pandemic as Strip resorts shuttered and people moved outside for recreation.

The number of jobs in Nevada’s outdoor recreation industry grew by about 6.5 percent from 2021 to 2022 to just under 54,000 total jobs, the agency said. Additionally, the industry makes up 2.7 percent of the state’s gross domestic product.

Hooper said Lee Canyon has increased its offerings to keep up with demand. The resort recently invested $7 million in capital projects, including adding several lifts to ferry people around the property, increasing daily capacity by about 1,000 people, he said.

Lee Canyon has also increased its workforce during its peak winter season from 180 in 2019 to 300 for this year. Hooper said the resort’s growth really skyrocketed during the early part of the pandemic and has steadily increased since.

But Lee Canyon isn’t the only outdoors-related business growing in Southern Nevada, as the roughly 60 members of the Nevada Outdoor Business Coalition, an industry group composed of businesses and nonprofit organizations, have seen an increase in all areas of outdoor activity in Las Vegas and around the state.

“If desert isn’t your thing, if rock climbing isn’t your thing, there’s still things for you to do here, especially if you widen your radius a little bit, zooming out from Las Vegas, Nevada has some of the most diverse landscapes I’ve ever seen in the state,” Mandi Elliott, executive director of the Nevada Outdoor Business Coalition, said.

Wide Array of Choices

Escape Adventures, which offers bike tours across the U.S. and in some foreign countries like New Zealand and Canada and oversees four bike shops, including two in Las Vegas, has seen a spike in interest in both tours for Southern Nevada and bike sales.

Jared Fisher, director of Escape Adventures, estimates that sales at the bike shops increased by 30 to 40 percent during the first year of the pandemic and sales have remained elevated from levels seen before the pandemic.

He said the pandemic gave the outdoor industry in Southern Nevada a nice boost, but the industry has been on an upward trajectory anyway as the population has boomed since he first started Escape Adventures as a college project at UNLV in the early 1990s.

“We went from 750,000 (population) when I moved here in 1992, to probably around 2 million down here,” Fisher said. “With that comes professional jobs, the casinos bring tons of tourists from out of town, more people have become outdoor conscious and want to spend more time outdoors.”

But even with the population growth, the region wouldn’t be seeing a boom in outdoor recreation if it weren’t for the vast array of parks and recreation areas located with a few hours drive.

In Clark County, there’s skiing at Lee Canyon, rock climbing at the Red Rock National Conservation Area, boating at Lake Mead National Recreation Area and hiking at the Valley of Fire State Park. Las Vegas is also within a day’s driving range of Zion National Park in Utah, Death Valley National Park in California and Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona.

These offerings make Las Vegas a great place to operate as a home base for outdoor enthusiasts, Fisher said.

“If you don’t like Vegas, it’s OK because Vegas is the greatest city to get out of as well,” he said.

Breaking through the noise

Despite these destinations, Hooper said the industry struggles to make a name for itself because of the other tourism draws in Las Vegas.

“How awesome the outdoor recreational opportunities are in Southern Nevada, it’s something that maybe doesn’t get as much publicity as it should,” Hooper said.

Elliott echoed that outdoor recreation is often left out of the discussion as the publicity for Las Vegas is mostly focused on the nightlife, gambling and sporting events in and around the Strip.

“It’s hard to compete, just from a branding perspective, but also from a financial perspective,” she said. “I mean, the Strip makes a boatload of money.”

In 2022, the 61 licensed properties on the Las Vegas Strip recorded $8.29 billion in gaming wins alone, which outpaced Nevada’s total outdoor recreation output for the year by more than $2 billion.

Even though outdoor offerings don’t rival the Strip, Bob Potts, deputy director of the Governor’s Office for Economic Development, said promoting and improving the recreation areas and amenities also is valuable to the local economy for improving the quality of life for those living in the valley and around the state.

He said quality of life is a large part of the decision-making process when companies decide to set up operations in Southern Nevada.

“There’s a whole laundry list of things that matter to companies for companies to be successful and, at the top of the list is always, or generally always at the top of the list, is workforce. You have to have the right workforce,” Potts said. “If you don’t have great quality of life, you can’t get people to live somewhere where a company wants to work, and therefore they can’t get their staff.”

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