A new study from the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks and the Center for Economic Development and Business Research at Wichita State University shows that parks in Kansas have a positive economic impact across the state and across multiple industries.
Properties in the Kansas State Park System are a valuable outdoor recreational resource for Kansas residents and visitors. Cities around Kansas State Park sites benefit economically from state spending on improvements because they improve the tourist experience and enhance capacity and quality of life. Established, amenity-rich locations capture more tourism spending that would otherwise escape the region and state. In many cases, the economic benefits generated by outdoor tourism are an integral part of the surrounding community and a key source of revenue for businesses.
The purpose of this recent study was to examine the economic impact of Kansas state parks on regional and state economies. The study used data on park spending and visitor spending habits to derive financial contributions, which capture the transactional side of the impact. Since it does not capture the full value associated with natural amenities statewide, the project also included qualitative elements from guests and vendors providing goods and services.
This project emailed 39,156 qualified visitors who visited a park at least once between April 1 and September 11, 2020, at one of twenty-eight locations in the state park system of Kansas. Statewide, survey respondents had an average party size of 4, stayed 4.1 days, and spent about $510 per trip. Most of the cost of the trip was for camping or cabin, excluding major one-time purchases like an RV, kayak, or jet ski. Groceries, transportation and recreational materials were the next three largest expenses. Total estimated visitor spending in Kansas was $170.1 million in 2020.
Annual statewide visitor traffic increased from 5.7 million to 8.6 million between 2019 and 2020. The increase in traffic accounted for all visitors and the number of days spent in the park. The dramatic 52% increase in visitation days was primarily due to the global pandemic. This study used the average annual total of visit days of 6.8 million, which excludes 2020, to represent the impact; however, the report also analyzed 2020 visits.
The 6.8 million visitors engaged in nature and family-related activities at Kansas State Parks support 5,058 jobs annually, which equates to $132.1 million in wages. Purchases of food, gasoline, tents and other supplies strongly support the service and retail sectors of the economy, which account for 96% of the employment impact.
Industry sales associated with these jobs have been estimated at $287.4 million per year. The impact across the state varied primarily due to the level of annualized same-day visitors. The three main state parks were El Dorado, Hillsdale, and Tuttle Creek. All three accounted for 31% of the total number of annual visitors and about 33% of the production’s impact on the state’s economy.
Cheney, Milford and Clinton, the next three largest state parks, all had similar visitor numbers and economic effects.
Another way to look at the economic impact of the 5,058 jobs is through visitor tourism activity. The visitor survey instrument asked guests to provide the main reason for their trip and any engagement during the visit. The impact of specialist activities such as boating and equestrian sports only used the main purpose of travel, which underestimates the total market value.
The top three activities were family time, hiking, and wildlife viewing. Although wildlife viewing and being close to nature had the greatest estimated impact, the number of visitors choosing this activity as their main reason for their trip was the lowest. Probably the biggest overall impact of this gear was because it was ubiquitous and an underlying purpose of the trip.
Camping was the highest selected primary activity of all Kansas state park visitors and had an estimated total employment impact of just under $1,201 and $39.3 million in labor income . Average spending per person per day was just under $20.
Although equestrian activities had the lowest total number of estimated visitors and the second lowest total impact, they had one of the highest values for regional business owners. Equestrian visitors had the highest expenditure per person per day of all activities at approximately $52.89.
Kansas State Park’s impact in 2020 had an even deeper contribution, supporting 1,354 additional jobs. Those 6,409 total jobs in 2020 generated about $167.3 million in salaries. During the pandemic, the retail sector has been one of the hardest hit sectors as households shut down. Nature-based tourism provided retail demand at a time when overall consumption declined, a welcome relief as businesses faced both layoffs and closures. The impact of this tourist consumption was primarily felt within 40 miles of the state park they visited. According to the survey’s estimates, about 67% of expenditures were close to their destination. Although some of the busiest parks are near urban cities, the majority are found in rural areas of the state.
Capital investments have not been included in the total contribution impact, as funding tends to be one-time expenditures and varies significantly from year to year. Capital investments include spending on improving trails, adding cabins and other maintenance. The annualized construction impact, which includes 2020, had a total impact of 20 jobs and $1.6 million in wages. Because Kansas State Parks routinely invest in maintenance and development, impacts should be considered a critical, value-added component of the state’s economy. Importantly, all investments in state parks increase quality and accessibility, which creates public value for society.
While this study calculated quantitative values associated with tourism spending, state parks provide other metrics that are not easily captured in the marketplace. In order to identify qualitative values, the visitor survey instrument asked questions based on satisfaction, value and perceived authenticity.
Survey respondents were, on average, quite satisfied with their trips to Kansas state parks; 91.9% of respondents would recommend the park to other potential visitors, and 79.9% were likely to revisit the same state park within 12 months. Respondents generally had positive perceptions of state parks, with at least two-thirds agreeing with each of the perception categories included in the survey.
State parks provide unique psychological value to individuals and society. National academic research has shown that connection with nature is linked to happiness, well-being and general satisfaction with life. In the perceptions part of the survey, just over 90% of respondents identified the parks as natural, which also explains why they felt it was a genuine and authentic experience. More importantly, they believed parks gave meaning to their lives and revealed what was important.
Less than 8% of respondents felt that the value they received from their visit was less than its cost, another sign of the high level of visitor satisfaction with the parks. The top three benefits that respondents experienced from their visits were spending quality time with their family, reducing their stress levels and improving their quality of life. These benefits were consistent across all generations of park visitors, with 90% or more of Boomers, Gen Xers and Millennials getting more value from their trip than the cost.
Similar to the qualitative benefits for households, this study also identified non-market values for Kansas businesses. When asked about their reliance on state parks as a source of revenue, more than half of respondents rated it moderately to very heavily. An overwhelming number of businesses indicated that if a state park closed, 45% indicated they would close, downsize or relocate.