New Study Finds Rock Climbers Bring $12.1 Million a Year to New River Gorge

A new study finds that rock climbers are a major economic force for the New River Gorge region of West Virginia, an internationally renowned rock climbing destination, contributing $12.1 million annually in tourism dollars across a three-county region. Photo courtesy of © Daniel Gajda

According to the study led by Dr. James Maples of Eastern Kentucky University, climber spending also supports the presence of 168 jobs in the region and contributes $6.3 million in wages.

“Outdoor recreation is an important part of our national economy,” says Dr. Maples. “Recent studies find that climbing is a valuable source of economic activity coming from public lands. In the New River Gorge, climbers are quite interested in supporting locally owned businesses while visiting the region. Those expenditures stay local, helping support wages for local residents as well as taxes for the community. Overall, this provides an important reason to protect climbing, public lands, and the economies built around them.”

Dr. James Maples and Dr. Michael Bradley, associate professors at Eastern Kentucky University, led the study with a team of social and outdoor recreation scientists from the region: Sadie Giles at Virginia Tech, Rhiannon Leebrick at Wofford College, and Brian Clark at Eastern Kentucky University. It is the first study of its kind to focus on the economic impact of rock climbing in West Virginia. The study was conducted in Fayette, Nicholas, and Raleigh counties, where popular climbing areas like New River Gorge, Summersville Lake, and Meadow River are located.

To measure the climbing community's contribution to the local economy, Dr. Maples’ team surveyed more than 600 climbers visiting the region. Surveys took place at known trailheads, parking areas, campgrounds, and other climber gathering spots. The surveys looked at climbers’ visitation patterns, interests, behaviors, demographic information, education, and income level. Information from this study can help local business owners and communities appeal to climbers’ particular interests and needs, helping them further capitalize on climbing tourism.

“Climbers, local communities, and land managers have an exciting opportunity to improve climbing access and bring more climber spending to the region to support local economies,” says Zachary Lesch-Huie, Southeast Regional Director for Access Fund.

Photo courtesy of © Daniel Gajda

The study makes a number of recommendations to increase the economic impact of climbing, including recognition of rock climbing as a renewable economic resource, increased access to climbing on public land, and ways to make communities more climber-friendly.

“West Virginia is well-known for outdoor recreation and adventure-based tourism, but prior to this study, the impact of climbing wasn’t well understood,” says Gene Kistler, President of New River Alliance of Climbers and co-owner of the local outdoor gear store, Waterstone Outdoors. “We hope this study helps community leaders, land managers, and policy makers see climbing as part of a strong, sustainable local economy. If we work together, we have a great opportunity to expand this benefit and responsibly open more climbing areas to the public.”

Climbing is part of a growing outdoor recreation economy in the United States. According to the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), Americans spent an estimated $887 billion on outdoor recreation in 2017. In West Virginia alone, OIA finds outdoor recreation users spent $9 billion the same year.

This New River Gorge study is consistent with a number of other recent climbing and outdoor recreation studies in the Appalachian region, in states like Kentucky, North Carolina, and Tennessee. Dr. Maples also led an Eastern Kentucky University study that found climbers were bringing $3.8 million to Kentucky’s Red River Gorge region, home to some of the poorest counties in the country. An Outdoor Alliance study found climbing visitors bring nearly $14 million to the Western North Carolina region. And a University of Tennessee Chattanooga study found climbers are making a $6.9 million annual impact in the Chattanooga region of Eastern Tennessee.

“Studies like this continue to show climbing is a renewable, sustaining economic resource,” says Lesch-Huie. “Climbing is often located in rural areas, and the activity can help bring much-needed economic stability to communities facing long-term economic challenges.”

The study was conducted with funding support from Access Fund, New River Alliance of Climbers, and Eastern Kentucky University. You can download the study here.

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