Recreation and tourism have a smaller role in Idaho's economy than experts assumed, but recreation may be the state's fastest-growing industry, a four-year University of Idaho study reports.

Tourism accounts for 3.3 percent of Idaho's $13.7 billion economy, or about $446 million, UI researchers Charles Harris and Henry Robison said Tuesday.In northern Idaho, tourism is twice as important to the economy as it is for the entire state. However, when the university project began in 1987, the team expected the economic impact of recreation north of Riggins to be twice what it actually was.

"Recreation is farther down the ladder than most people expected," said Harris, a professor in the UI Department of Resource, Recreation and Tourism. "A lot of people thought it was the No. 3 industry and it's not really close."

The UI study is the nation's most comprehensive survey of the economic impacts of tourism on a state, Harris said.

Agriculture, timber and food processing remain the three biggest moneymakers in Idaho. But farming and timber are stagnating, while tourism is booming, Harris said.

For example, hotel revenues surged 40 percent, with tourism responsible for more than half of that.

Harris said the study did not consider the attraction of recreational opportunities and Idaho's quality of life as reasons that businesses move to Idaho. However, he said there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to show that is happening.

Harris also has studied the attitudes of residents in two central Idaho cities that are becoming important recreation centers: Riggins and Orofino. The economies of both towns have traditionally been based on timber, but that industry is in decline.

He found that nearly 80 percent of residents in both towns want to attract more visitors and further promote tourism, but they are afraid tourism will damage the timber economy and natural resources in the area.

Based on hundreds of roadside interviews with Idaho travelers in 1987 as well as economic studies, Harris and Robison, an agricultural economist, reported there were seven million leisure trips taken in Idaho that year.

Travelers spent an average of $60 a day along the way, and three out of four participated in recreation activities.

They also found:

Tourism provided 15,111 jobs in 1987, about 4.1 percent of the Idaho workforce.

More than 80 percent of tourism revenues remained in Idaho, while the rest paid for imported products and services.

Most tourism businesses are locally owned, small concerns whose income likely remains in Idaho. By comparison, many timber or manufacturing businesses in Idaho are large corporations that drain income to out-of-state headquarters or stockholders.

Forty-four percent of Idaho recreation travelers are from Idaho, and most of the rest come from California, Washington, Oregon and Montana. And most out-of-state travelers were headed for destinations in other states, such as Yellowstone or Glacier national parks.