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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Boat, RV sales down in 2023, could jump if interest rates fall

Visitors view recreational vehicles, mobile homes and motor homes during the West Palm Beach RV Show at the South Florida Fairgrounds in West Palm Beach, Florida, on Feb. 19.  (Giorgio Viera/AFP/Getty Images North America/TNS)
By John Myers Duluth News Tribune Duluth News Tribune

DULUTH, Minn. – The U.S. spending spree on boats and recreational vehicles that soared during the pandemic fell back to Earth in 2023, with sales down in nearly all categories as interest rates jumped and buyers backed off.

RV and boat sales rose to record or near record levels from 2020-22 as Americans rushed to get outdoors to have their fun.

But sales of big, new, fun stuff fell in 2023 to the lowest level in a decade: boats down 5%-25%, depending on the type, and RVs down 20% year over year, according to Recreational Vehicle Industry Association and National Marine Manufacturers Association year-end reports.

The one category that saw an increase in sales was personal watercraft: up more than 20%.

Industry analysts are split on whether sales of RVs and boats will go up in 2024, with interest rates falling some but still above the historic-low levels of a few years ago.

“With jumps in interest rates and inflation in 2023, we saw more boating consumers being price sensitive and deciding to wait things out before buying their next boat, and in the meantime, picking up a personal watercraft to enrich their time spent on the water,” Frank Hugelmeyer, president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association, said in a statement.

“The nearly 1 million people who purchased a boat for the first time during the height of the pandemic continued to spend record time on the water in 2023, helping drive an economic impact of $230 billion,” he said.

Winter is a traditionally strong selling season for the recreational boating industry, with dozens of boat shows around the country in January and February, such as the Duluth Sport Show that starts Thursday and ends Monday.

Industry officials say boat shows spur a spurt in sales as spring approaches.

RVs and boats were in unusually high demand in 2020 and 2021 as consumers shifted to outdoor activities such as camping and boating as a way to more safely enjoy time with friends and family during the pandemic.

In 2021, the RV industry shipped a record 600,240 units to dealers, a 19% jump over the record set in 2017. While sales started to cool in 2022 as interest rates climbed, RV manufacturers continued to pour out new units, leading to an oversupply by 2023.

With that inventory under better control, some industry experts say they expect 2024 sales to bounce back to 2022 levels. Others say high interest rates could keep many buyers on the sidelines for another year or more.

“While the past year has presented macroeconomic challenges for the industry leading to shipment declines, this latest forecast indicates a poised recovery with anticipated moderate increases in 2024 and a subsequent accelerated growth trend in the latter half of the year,” said Craig Kirby, president of the RV Industry Association.