So many people poured into New Hampshire’s Mount Washington Valley during the pandemic, the chamber of commerce had to launch a “Mind Your Manners” campaign.
These weren’t necessarily experienced outdoors enthusiasts. Judging from the cars with New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts license plates double-parked near trailheads, and the hundreds of pounds of trash that volunteers pulled out of the woods every weekend, locals concluded this was an onslaught of visitors new to the outdoors.
Small annoyances for people in New Hampshire now seem a harbinger of what’s ahead as Americans tentatively plan how they will travel after COVID-19.
In the race to see what parts of the tourism industry will recover first, nature is winning.
COVID-19 “has given lots of travelers time to reflect on some of the things they may want to experience in life, and for many people the answer is an experience in nature,” said Mark Whitman, founder of the adventure travel company Mountain IQ.
People have already spent more time outdoors this year because it was one of the few places they could go; the number who visited national and state parks or took hikes and wilderness treks was up 33 percent this year over last year, according to WishTrip, an app that helps users organize their photos and other mementos of their travels.
Many realized how much they liked it, said Ben Perlo, managing director of G Adventures’ US office, which is in Boston.
“That reconnecting with nature has kind of carried forward,” Perlo said. “It’s about getting off the beaten path, not being where everybody is, and getting back to nature and experiencing that. So you see camping spiking, you see national parks spiking, you see international hiking and active trips really spiking.”
Even as business fell 40 percent on Airbnb in the first nine months of this year and 58 percent on Expedia in its most recent quarter, the lodges, cabins, and campsites booking engine Pitchup.com reports that reservations for 2021 are more than six times higher than advance reservations last year, before the pandemic hit. Getaway, which rents small cabins in nature, has seen a 148 percent increase in bookings.
The state of Nebraska has gotten 38,000 fishing permit applications, a 10-year high. AllTrails, which sells digital trail maps and guides, has seen a 115 percent jump in signups. Public campsites around Niagara Falls are already 20 percent booked for next summer and fall. And when Fit & Fly, which runs fitness and cultural trips for women, added a new retreat for 2021 to Iceland, it sold out in four days.
“It’s a testament to how many people are ready to travel and want something to look forward to next year but even more importantly, traveling in a way that allows us to immerse ourselves in nature,” Fit & Fly cofounder Rebecca Garland said.
More than half of consumers say they are more likely to take an outdoor or nature trip than they were before the pandemic, according to a survey by Needham-based TripAdvisor, which says searches for campgrounds and ranches are way up.
Travelers are increasingly using search words such as “hiking,” “nature,” and “relaxation,” the reservations platform Booking.com says; it says 56 percent of travelers are looking for off-the-beaten-track escapes to nature.
REI Adventures, the travel arm of the outdoor-goods store, reports strong interest in natural parks and camping trips, and that “hiking” and “backpacking” are the top searches.
Outdoor recreation was already on the rise, propelled by enthusiasm for it among millennials and Gen Zs; it accounted for an estimated $788 billion in consumer spending last year, according to the US Bureau of Economic Analysis, up $10 billion since 2017.
“It’s not just a new fad. It’s an acceleration of a trend,” said AllTrails spokeswoman Meaghan Praznik.
COVID-19 and the lockdowns it triggered have accelerated the degree to which other Americans started taking nature less for granted. A Harris poll in the midst of the pandemic found that 69 percent had a renewed appreciation for the outdoors.
“People are realizing, gee, that 30-minute outdoor hike or walk in a park feels good and I want to keep doing it,” said Lise Aangeenbrug, executive director of the Outdoor Industry Association.
Many have invested in outdoor gear, said Chris Emery, editor of the website Ordealist, which focuses on overlanding. “People are spending a lot of resources building up camping setups and vehicles that they can adventure in,” he said, and there’s every reason to expect they’ll keep using them.
L.L. Bean reports that sales of kayaks, canoes, and stand-up paddleboards have quadrupled and sales of fishing equipment are up 25 percent — well ahead of boating and fishing season, which a company spokeswoman said suggests “this outdoor trend will continue well after COVID.”
A significant number of consumers are new to such activities as hiking, biking, and camping, and tourism providers are scrambling to accommodate them.
Mountain IQ is seeing significantly more interest from what Whitman calls general travelers, who may in the past have booked a cruise or a beach vacation but now are inquiring about hiking and biking tours.
Iain Miller, who runs the Irish adventure tourism company Unique Ascent, is already hearing from people in the United States and Canada who want to book his climbing trips on the remote sea stacks of Donegal. “These are people who have never rock-climbed before [and] rarely if ever go hiking,” he said.
Backroads, which organizes cycling trips, has added a slower-paced “dolce tempo” option with more flexibility and free time, and on electric bikes, spokeswoman Liz Einbinder said. “We are definitely getting bookings from people who are new to adventure travel, which would include many people who took up cycling during the pandemic.”
Contiki is launching “mini adventures” of three or four days, including hiking and biking in Croatia, surfing and yoga in Morocco, wilderness glamping in Wales, and a wildlife photography safari in Botswana.
Even in Japan, the adventure tour operator Oku Japan is fielding requests from American customers for more moderate hikes, said Kathie Callum, sales manager.
G Adventures’ Perlo has also noticed many more first-timers inquiring about trips in nature. “A lot of these people may not feel comfortable doing it on their own, and they like the support of having a tour operator and making sure the activities are structured.”
There’s a trace of resentment among some people who were nature fanatics even before the COVID crisis introduced so many others to it. “I’ve seen tons of new people off-roading, mountain-biking, and hiking in areas where I frequent,” said Emery, of Ordealist. “Many of these people don’t necessarily have the leave-no-trace ethic that diehard outdoors enthusiasts typically have.”
AllTrails has introduced a “trails less traveled” feature, to help more experienced users avoid the increased traffic and the newbies. Outdoors companies and public parks have launched a “#RecreateResponsibly” campaign to encourage conscientious use of outdoor spaces.
Even farm stays are benefitting from this craze. Scottie Jones, director of Farm Stay USA, reports that his own farm in Oregon has had more reservations than at any time since he opened a guest lodge there in 2007.
“It isn’t hard to figure out,” Jones said. Nature “offers a breath of fresh air, away from all that ails us.”
Jon Marcus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.