Americans’ boating passion still afloat after pandemic

By Joann Muller, author of Axios What’s Next.

Recreational boating, which took off during the COVID-19 pandemic, remains popular despite what industry experts call a “normalization” of boat sales in the wake of the COVID era’s extraordinary growth.

Why it matters: It turns out that prioritizing outdoor recreationmental health and unique experiences with close friends and family has lasting appeal for many Americans.

  • The continued strong demand is good news for boat manufacturers and technicians, as well as the marinas and hospitality businesses that feed off the boating industry.
  • With sales steadying, at least people shopping for a new boat are likely to have better luck finding one this summer.

Between the lines: It’s not the yacht-owning one-percenters responsible for America’s booming boat economy.

  • Rather, it’s the vast numbers of regular folks fishing, water-skiing, sailing and jet-skiing, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA).
  • 800,000 first-time boat buyers entered the market in 2020 and 2021, NMMA senior vice president Ellen Bradley tells Axios.

By the numbers: Recreational boating saw a 35% increase in annual economic activity between 2018 and 2023, leaping from $170 billion to $230 billion, per NMMA.

  • Marine industry-related jobs grew from 691,000 to 812,000 during that period, a 17.5% jump.
  • Sales of powerboats, sailboats and personal watercraft peaked in 2020 at 318,654 units, totaling $50.3 billion.
  • Sales cooled slightly in 2021, to 305,734 units — but that’s partly due to supply chain issues, which constrained inventory, Bradley notes.
  • Last year, the industry sold just over 261,000 units — still strong by historical standards — and more than 1 million pre-owned boats. Sales are expected to remain flat, or increase slightly, this year.

Zoom in: East and West Coast states account for a large chunk of those sales, but states in the Great Lakes region — Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota, for example — have also seen strong demand.