Despite the economic challenges faced during the recession in 2009, a survey of whitewater rafting outfitters offering vacations on Idaho's Middle Fork of the Salmon River points to a modest upturn in business in 2010.
Middle Fork outfitters are projecting a slight improvement in business this year, although they don't anticipate a meaningful recovery from the recession for at least another year. Nearly 77 percent of those responding to the survey said they believe the current downturn is much steeper than previous recessions and that it will be two or three years before they see a significant improvement.
The survey, sponsored by the Idaho Outfitters & Guides Association and the American Outdoors Association, queried Middle Fork outfitters on business conditions encountered in 2009 and asked for their outlook for the 2010 season.
Any improvement will be good news for the small rural Idaho communities that depend on outfitting and tourism to provide seasonal employment and a stream of vacationers that utilize local services. One such community is Stanley, Idaho, the town where most Middle Fork trips originate.
"Whitewater rafting on the Middle Fork of the Salmon in the Salmon Challis National Forest is the cornerstone for nearly every business in Stanley,"says Greg Edson, president of the Stanley Chamber of Commerce. "Local businesses, as well as the city of Stanley, rely on the rafting season to provide for over 90 percent of their annual revenue and are therefore dependent upon a healthy whitewater rafting industry."
Dan Scott, who operates McCall Air Taxi and relies on outfitter referrals for customers, says, "We experienced a dramatic decline in outfitter related business in 2009. Outfitter bookings were off, which meant our business was down as well."
Seventy-five percent of Middle Fork rafting outfitters reported revenues were down from 15 percent to more than 30 percent last year because of the recession. The survey revealed that the recession resulted in fewer new hires, curtailed equipment purchases, and trimmed marketing expenditures. Many outfitters said they were forced to defer business development plans until the recession ends.
Brent Godfrey, sales manager for Quality Motors, in Salmon, Idaho, handles the sale of many outfitter vehicles, primarily full-sized crew cab pick-up trucks, and vans.
"We were hit pretty hard by the downturn and saw a drop of more than 40 percent in outfitter business,"Godfrey says. "Where I really saw the impact of the recession was in town. There just weren't many folks around and the local businesses got clobbered. The town had many less visitors than usual."
The economic benefit of outfitting is felt statewide as many visitors combine a whitewater rafting vacation in the national forest with stays at resorts and guest ranches across Idaho.
Eighty percent of outfitters responding to the survey said they don't believe that federal programs would help their small businesses recover from the economic downturn. They said they're concerned, though, that potential new U.S. Forest Service permit regulations could hinder any recovery. Middle Fork river outfitters hold permits to operate in the national forest. River users have paid an estimated $2 million in fees to the Salmon Challis Forest Service since 2005.
The Middle Fork of the Salmon is recognized as one of the premier wilderness rivers in America. A typical trip is six days and can accommodate 24 guests and a crew of six. In most years, outfitters take more than 6,000 vacationers down the Middle Fork.
The Idaho Outfitters & Guides Association is a nonprofit business trade group. It represents the majority of the state's full-time licensed outfitters and guides. Members primarily are small, independently owned businesses offering guided hunting, fishing, river running, trail riding, hiking, biking, climbing, skiing, snowmobiling, and guest ranch trips.
The America Outdoors Association is a nonprofit international trade organization for adventure travel outfitters, outdoor tour companies, outdoor educators, and their suppliers.
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