Outdoor recreation trends are constantly evolving. Before 2020, the issue of overtourism was prominent as major attractions were being crowded and overrun by tourists. During the summers of 2020 and 2021, the pandemic drew people away from busy, must-see sites and into the wide-open, great outdoors. Parks and outdoor attractions saw a surge of popularity. Now many people have opened their eyes to the importance of connecting with the natural world and finding excursions that make them slow down and focus on healing their mental or physical health. Travelers are continuing to prioritize outdoor experiences and the return to normal life is not slowing down this trend.
Takeaways from the 2023 NYSTIA Conference
Last month, I attended the 2023 New York State Tourism Industry Conference in Oswego, NY. A panel discussion with tourism professionals in the outdoor sector piqued my interest and demonstrated the force of outdoor tourism:
- In 2021, camping accounted for 40% of all leisure trips.
- Due to the prominence of remote jobs, more campers are choosing to work from the campground.
- Today, the camping impact in New York State is $4 billion.
- 5 million people visited New York State parks last year.
- New York State sees $1.3 billion annually from Erie Canal visitation.
Pre-Covid & Overtourism
The issue of overtourism arises when there are too many visitors to a particular destination. The constant stream of people at specific locations and monuments inevitably puts pressure on infrastructure and natural resources. Take Machu Picchu for example: prior to Covid, this destination was receiving over a million visitors each year. The high volume of visitors put a strain on the site, causing erosion, litter, and damage to the archaeological structures.
Other consequences of overtourism include destruction of natural ecosystems, increase in waste, and the departure of local residents.
The Boom of Outdoor Tourism
During the pandemic, overtourism became less of an issue for some sites. Tourism dropped significantly at top attractions as up to 90% of cultural institutions had to close their doors.
Being outdoors was the safe, welcomed escape that we all were desperate for. People spending more time in nature over the last few years has led to a boom of outdoor tourism. Travelers are seeking outdoor activities such as hiking, camping, and biking to reconnect with nature and improve their overall health.
Now that people are traveling again, overtourism is back on the list of top concerns for many destinations and attractions. National parks and other popular outdoor locations share this worry – they have been reporting issues as they encounter an unprecedented rush of visitors.
Top Outdoor Locations
Although more outdoor attractions are ramping up the number of visitors they take in, people still wish to stay away from crowds. Estimates show that this summer season, open-air tourism is set to be record-breaking. A predicted 56.6 million people will travel in June, July, August and September, an increase of 2% compared to 2022 (55.5 million). According to MSN, 57% of travelers want to vacation at a beach this year as it’s both an escape from everyday life and provides a wide-open space to distance from others.
But it’s not just the beach as most travelers are actually looking to venture into unfamiliar places and discover their own hidden gems. US travelers in particular are being drawn to western scenes in outdoorsy destinations with a rustic ranch feel, and 70 percent of millennials and Gen Z’ers report seeking travel experiences to places that their family and friends haven’t heard of.
Another trend we’re seeing with tourists is the demand for nature tourism. People are yearning for a trip where they can slow down, stop and smell the roses, and connect with nature in ways that they haven’t before. In fact, 42% of travelers are booking activities that focus on bettering their mental and physical health, such as forest bathing. “Microadventures” are also increasingly becoming popular as they allow travelers to connect with nature on smaller, shorter, and cheaper excursions.
Sustainable tourism is critical for maintaining the natural beauty of a destination, minimizing littering and waste, protecting cultural and historical sites, and respecting the local communities. The everyday traveler is interested in doing their part to travel sustainably. In fact, 90% of travelers are now looking for sustainable options when traveling, and half of these travelers say they would pay more to take a sustainable trip.
This comes at a time of increased recovery efforts for the tourism industry. The New York State EDA Tourism Partner Sub-Awards Grant Program recently awarded $14.2 million to 30 tourism partners. One sub-category of this grant was given to DMOs to promote outdoor recreation. These grants were distributed with the intent to maximize the trend of increased outdoor tourism and convert first-time users of New York State’s outdoor recreational assets to regular guests. These DMOs now have the challenge of creating awareness of lesser-known outdoor destinations to help redirect visitors from the more crowded spots. This in turn will improve the visitor experience and ensure the long-term preservation of popular sites for future generations to enjoy.