Water-Based Tours & Activities’ Wild Ride in 5 Charts

Many watersport and boat tour operators have ridden an incredible wave of growth as the pandemic sent travelers from cities and crowds to the great outdoors. But can they sustain this growth? Here’s their story in five charts

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As the pandemic took hold in the first half of 2020, much of travel — and many in tours, activities and attractions — saw their business all but evaporate. But after a relatively short lockdown, U.S. consumers got back on the road. Where they went, and what they did, changed dramatically. One of the biggest beneficiaries of that change was the water-based tours and activities sector. 

Travelers Head to Water

Water-Based Tours & Activities’ Wild Ride in 5 Charts Arival Douglas Quinby

In 2019 just 13% of U.S. travelers booked a water-based tour or activity. That figure more than doubled by 2021 to 28%. This kind of statistical shift is exceedingly rare in annual tracking surveys such as ours, and shows just how dramatically travel patterns changed. 

Watersport Operators Experienced Phenomenal Growth

Water-Based Tours & Activities’ Wild Ride in 5 Charts Arival Douglas Quinby

According the Arival’s own ongoing industry tracking surveys, the vast major of tour, activity and attraction operators — nearly 90% — experienced significant business declines in 2020. The average decline was 74% versus 2019. 

However, according to a recent survey we conducted in partnership with TripShock, a majority of watersports operators saw their business grow in 2020. Their average growth was 45% over 2019, which itself was already a banner year.

Only Up in 2021

That growth only accelerated in 2021. Three in four watersport operators reported growth in 2021. While the broader industry has seen an uptick in business this year, water-based activity operators reported average growth of more than 40% over 2020, which again was a banner year over their previous high in 2019.  

The Cost of Growth

Can operators sustain that growth in 2022 and beyond? We’re not so sure. There are two factors to consider. The first is rising costs. 

Watersport operators have been significantly impacted by rising costs in staffing, equipment and insurance, with many reporting annual increases of well over 10%. Several operators attending the TripShock Watersports & Boat Tours Forum in Orlando, Florida, reported cost increases of more than 30%. 

These cost increases come along with the supply chain disruption that is affecting many industries worldwide. Operators report significant back orders for new boats, jet skis, motors and parts, among other equipment. 

A second risk factor operators face is labor. Many report growing difficulty in finding and retaining qualified staff and guides to support the business and their growth. 

On a positive note, however, operators have been able to raise prices and pass those costs on to their customers. Nearly nine in 10 operators report increasing prices in 2021, and more than a third report raising prices by more than 10%. 

What Happens When Travel Gets Normal Again?

Another key question all water-based activity operators should consider is whether they are ready for slower growth in the years ahead. This sector has benefited significantly from a massive shift in travel away from big cities, crowded attractions and international travel. That travel will return. 

U.S. consumers will head back to New York, Chicago, Europe and elsewhere. In fact, that return is already underway, albeit slowly. Watersport operators may want to consider a near- to medium-term outlook that looks more like growth based on pre-pandemic trends. 

A note of thanks to TripShock and all of the operators who attended the Watersports & Boat Tours Forum and responded to our survey for sharing their insights for this research

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