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Hiking trails and national parks are good for economic growth

Hiking is not only one of the most popular forms of exercise, but also an activity with many positive social and economic impacts. It is also practised in Hungary at a much higher rate than the most popular sports. According to a survey conducted by a hiking equipment manufacturer with a presence in Hungary, three quarters of Hungarians hike, and about two thirds are regular hikers. Since 2010, the number of visitors to national parks in Hungary has increased by a quarter in a decade, reaching 1.6 million annually by the early 2020s. In this period, Hungary has seen a number of developments, such as the construction of cycle paths, the renovation of tourist houses, the creation of nature trails and ecotourism centres, and improved water hiking opportunities. As a result of the increased commitment to hiking, four times as many people hiked the National Blue Trail in 2022 and 2023 annually as a decade ago. The popularity of the movement is also demonstrated by the fact that, following the highly successful 1979 educational television series by Pál Rockenbauer, a new documentary film, Anilla Till’s “2550 – Walking around a country”, was shown in cinemas in May 2024.

The social and economic impacts of hiking

The American Hiking Society’s own site promoting hiking and trails offers a rarely seen perspective on hiking. Their analysis highlights the economic benefits of hiking trails and national parks. They find that hiking trails not only protect flora and fauna, but that forests and protected areas are a multi-billion dollar source of revenue for sectors such as recreation and forestry, while also playing a key role in offsetting the effects of global warming. The importance of the sector is demonstrated by the fact that one in 20 Americans is employed in some form in the outdoor recreation industry, and thus the industry’s importance to the national economy is not negligible. The proportion of hikers is growing each year; 32 million people in the US hiked in 2010, whereas in 2023, more than 60 million Americans used the states’ hiking trails, or as many as one in six. National parks are also popular, with a total of 325 million tickets purchased in 2023. US national parks have generally been created for specific functions. As such, visits were split between the different types of parks, with 38% of visitors seeking out recreational parks, 32% historical and cultural sites, while 30% went hiking for the natural environment. Visitors impacted the local economy in a number of ways, including through travel costs, food purchases, and spending on accommodation and sometimes souvenirs. The researchers also pointed to the correlation that hiking sites increase the value of property in the area. Cities that have transformed their outdated industrial neighbourhoods into green zones have experienced an economic boom in recent decades.

As environmental considerations are becoming increasingly important, analysts also highlight the fact that hiking and cycling are sustainable leisure and recreation activities, as they do not use fuel. In addition, these forms of activity reduce dependence on cars.

The advantage of hiking is that it is an outdoor activity that people often see as an experience rather than a physical effort. Extensive research in the United States has shown that visitors to national parks and hiking trails have experienced significant improvements in a range of health and well-being indicators as their physical activity levels increased. The US National Park Service has investigated the overall health benefits of outdoor recreation. They found that the health benefits of time spent outdoors can be seen through exposure to the natural elements, participation in physical activity, restoration of mental and emotional health, and time spent socialising. The positive health effects have also been seen in reduced social security spending, with regular hikers being healthier, less likely to visit the doctor and having less severe illnesses than their non-hiking counterparts.

How much do we hike in Hungary?

In line with global trends, the number of visitors to hiking trails and national parks in Hungary has also increased rapidly since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, which may have a positive impact on the environmental awareness of the population too. The number of visitors to national parks in Hungary has increased by a quarter since 2010, reaching 1.6 million last year. There was an unprecedented increase in the popularity of blue trail hiking in the 2010s, followed by an even more significant increase in the number of hikers completing the National Blue Trail after the coronavirus pandemic. More than one-and-a-half times as many blue hiking certificate booklets – over 20,000 – were acquired by hikers in 2020 than in the year before. At the same time, the popularity of hiking was already on the rise in the years before the pandemic. The blue trail hiking movement dates back decades, but only reached 200 annual completers in 2015, and interest in the National Blue Trail has been growing ever since. In 2019, 405 people completed it. Then, after the pandemic, there was a sharp increase, with 585 people completing the trail in 2021, 823 in 2022 and 799 in 2023. The 1,165-kilometre National Blue Trail is considerably longer than the distance – usually 800 kilometres – completed by pilgrims on the famous pilgrimage route El Camino. The most famous hiking trail in Hungary, it is a hike for all ages, with the youngest participant being 7 years old and the oldest 95 years old when handing in their stamped booklet attesting to the completion of the route. A documentary film about the National Blue Circle was released in May 2024, which was eagerly awaited by professional organisations and hiking enthusiasts.

The figure can be referenced here:

The popularity of performance tours is also outstanding. Both the number of participants and the number of events have grown dynamically over the last decade. The earliest of these challenges were the Kinizsi 100 and the Gerecse 50, which were first organised in the 1980s. There is also a great variety in the type of tours, with different distances and levels of difficulty to choose from. The Gerecse 50 tour is an example of this dynamically increasing desire to go hiking. The number of participants increased from 7,000 in 2014 to over 10,000 in 2015, and based on the experience of the 2015 and 2016 tours, the organisers have capped the total number of participants at 8,000 for the four different distances.

A study conducted by Fjällräven, a Swedish hiking equipment distributor with a presence in Hungary, found that hiking is a leisure activity that contributes to both physical and mental well-being for people of all ages in our country too. As a result of these experiences, the majority of those who regularly go hiking, 60% according to the survey, pay more attention to environmental protection, separate waste collection and prefer sustainable solutions to a higher extent. The survey shows that three quarters of Hungarians hike and around two thirds are regular hikers: one in two people put on hiking boots several times a year and 15% are committed hikers, going hiking at least once a month or even once a week. Nearly 40% of respondents take part in a multi-day hike, and a third (33%) have never tried it but are preparing to do so. Thus, more and more people want to spend more time in nature, which is also important for domestic tourism.

In recent years, not only has hiking become more popular, but the proportion of tourists staying in campsites has also increased. According to statistics from the National Tourist Information Centre, the turnover of campsites increased by 70% between 2020 and 2023. It is also worth noting that this type of accommodation was the most resilient to the crisis during the coronavirus pandemic, with the smallest drop in overnight stays, with a decline of just under 50% in Hungary, according to Eurostat data.

How do we prepare for hikes?

The survey by the hiking equipment manufacturer also shows that more than 40% of hikers set off without prior planning, just following the hiking signs, while a larger proportion of respondents follow a pre-selected hiking route after prior preparation, either individually or in groups. A third of the respondents use online or in-app maps and tour planners, followed by almost 20% who use traditional maps, and the remaining 7% who take guided tours or set off with a hiking club. Among users of online or smartphone tour planners, there is a significant difference between the share of men (36%) and women (25%).

The figure can be referenced here:

How do we hike?

Walking is not the only tour type we can choose for an excursion, but it is undoubtedly the most important. According to the 2020 Aktív Magyarország (State Secretariat for Active Hungary) survey, 54% of the adult Hungarian population have taken part in a hiking tour, 34% in a cycling tour, 6% in a water tour, 4% in skiing or snowboarding, 3% in sailing and 2% in horse riding. In the case of skiing, the survey focused specifically on those who used domestic ski slopes. In the case of horse riding, the base is also broader, but they tried to take into account the fact that equestrian tourism has a wider tourism impact than trail riding. Respondents were allowed to select more than one tour type in their response, so there is some overlap, but it is safe to say that this survey also suggests that more than half of the adult population are potentially active tourists.

The figure can be referenced here:

Senior kutató | Published writings


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