Can Cycling Help Boost the Tourism Industry?

I’ve just returned from my best scuba diving trip ever. Mike Ball dive trips are legendary, so I wasn’t surprised people had travelled from the Caribbean, Canada and Cape Town to wonder at Australia’s Coral Sea. But one full dive boat does not heal Queensland’s tourism industry rocked by the relentless negative publicity brought on by drought then floods and cyclones. This reality left me wondering, can cycling help to boost the tourism industry here in Queensland and around the world?

I believe it can. Times have changed, people demand more from their holidays. A week on the beach with fish and chips for supper no longer cuts the mustard. People expect magical settings – and not having to travel too far to enjoy them, unique experiences, knowledgeable hosts, neutral impacts on the environment, locally sourced fresh seasonal produce and direct access to a different, more relaxed, way of life.

Bicycle tourism has moved from the margins to the mainstream. ‘Green tourism’, ‘ethic holidays’ and ‘slow travel’, has, for those who have been prepared to embrace change and diversify, led to cost savings, enhanced reputation, operational efficiency and improved profitability. Moreover consumer demand is alive and consistent.

The very moment the Otago Central Rail Trail in New Zealand was proposed opposition groups began forming. Landowners, local traders and residents alike couldn’t see any tangible benefits of thousands of bike riders pedaling along a disused rail line. A few years on and more than 60,000 people visit the trail each year. Many of the previously opposing farmers and landowners have diversified their businesses to provide farm accommodation and family run cafes, and ‘side businesses’ like curling and horse riding have opened as the result of more visitors. Half of businesses along the trail directly attribute three quarters of their turnover to the Rail Trail. Turning a potential liability into an asset has enabled the community to prosper and created a strong destination product.

The Tarka Trail in Devon is one of England’s longest continuous traffic-free cycling paths. More than 30 miles of safe off-road cycling experiences has resulted in half a million additional tourist nights, directly created over 500 jobs and resulted in the opening of seven bicycle hire companies. Furthermore, job creation and tourist spending has occurred in an area of declining agricultural employment where diversification of the economy was most needed.

But bicycle tourism doesn’t always require extravagant expensive infrastructure. Wollumbin BUG, a non-profit community-based Bicycle User Group, in Northern New South Wales, 30 minutes drive from Queensland’s Gold Coast, celebrated the first birthday of their group with a ‘Ride the Scenic Rim’ cycling weekend. More than 100 people from across Australia converged on the Murwillumbah Showgrounds for bicycle excursions and après-cycling entertainment. Normal people in normal clothes on normal bikes cycled around the Tweed countryside enjoying the scenery but most importantly spending cash on coffee in local cafes, buying dinner at local pubs and purchasing from independent shops and galleries. More events like the ‘Ride the Scenic Rim’ weekend can help change perceptions of cycling, encourage more people to cycle for fun and most of all enable more people to spend more money in rural destinations.

On the banks of the Dart Estuary, in 30 acres of gardens, is the National Trust’s beautiful Greenway House, once owned by Agatha Christie. In response to a planning application Greenway managers produced a sustainable transport strategy with the aim to increase visitor numbers and reduce visits by private car. Almost a decade on, and thanks to ‘Green Ways to Greenway’, the property is more popular than ever with more than two thirds of visitors arriving by river ferry, vintage bus, canoe or bicycle. Installing cycle parking at the house has widened travel choice and attracted a brand new audience of patrons.

In a refurbished barn in rural Cornwall, a team of four extraordinarily creative and enthusiastic people encourage, inform, network, research, lobby, measure, persuade, object, question, bend ears, break boundaries and are revolutionising tourism. They are Coast – Cornwall Sustainable Tourism Project – an independently run social enterprise who work with everyone from camp sites to fudge makers, beach cafes to beer brewers, hotels to photographers and even recycling collectors to ensure tourism delivers social, economic and environmental benefits, as well as fantastic holidays. Through their network, One Planet Tourism, more than 1250 members across 20 countries pick each other’s brains, swap information, provide support and wisdom and share triumphs, failures, frustrations and breakthroughs, with the aim to make tourism, in all shapes and sizes, more sustainable.

So yes, cycling really does have the potential to provide significant economic, social and environmental benefits to urban and regional destinations. There isn’t one single way of making everything right overnight, but if we really want to boost and diversify tourism, and make cycle tourism a success, we all have to work together; tourist operators, transport providers, traders, landowners, local authorities, government agencies, economists and bicycle specialists alike. We need to research the market potential, understand the diverse market segments and join all the tourism projects up together, then, we really can make that big difference.

The Mike Ball brand has been cultivated, locally and internationally, through extraordinary passion over the last 40 years. Times have changed and smaller less established tourism providers don’t have the time or money to wait for people to travel from far flung corners of the world. If we really want tourism to be sustainable, through weather and economic slumps, then cycling certainly is part of the answer.

Rachel Smith is a Principal Transport Planner with professional technical services consultancy AECOM in Brisbane. You can download Rachel’s Cycling Super Highways Toolkit here.

  • David Cook

    Unfortunately we live in a culture where long term solutions with large long term rewards are not as valued as as short term solutions with small short term rewards; maintaining the status quo is always valued higher than change – even change for the better.

    When culture runs deep, changing it is a long process, chipping away slowly, finding opportunities when possible, and focusing on the positives rather than the negatives, just the way Rachel is doing.

  • Philip Higgins

    I don’t know how popular mountain biking is in Queensland, but here in the UK it’s obvious it attracts people with high disposable income – judging by some of the machines (not mine!) worth thousands of pounds I see them riding.  On the trails I use in Wales (UK), I’m always surprised how local hotels and B&B’s aren’t more ‘cycle friendly’ to encourage these people to stay overnight and spend some money in the local economy.  A prime need is a place to secure these treasured possessions away from the attention of bike thieves and the ability to wash their bikes and store dirty / smelly clothing. 

    On the subject of MB trails and leisure trails.  I think the French do cycloturisme really well in Vosges – check this out: – here they have leisure trails linking with MB trails and lots of places to stay.  Combined with modern trains equipped to take bikes, very different from the old diesel trains in the UK!, they are equipped and well-positioned to take advantage of the economic benefits of cycle tourism. 

    • Rachel Smith

      Thank you for your comment Philip. Mountain biking is very opopular around Canberra but there is huge potential here in Queensland. For example North Stradbroke Island wioll be looking for new ways to attract tourists with the sand mining stopping. The isalnd is accessed by water taxi and car ferry which carry bicycles – which could be the equivalent of the train!. The opportunities are endless. Thank you.   

  • Don

    Mention of the Tarka Trail interests me, having recently ridden it with a friend, as part of the Devon coast to coast cycle route. Needless to say, all our spending money on that trip went to local cafes and B&Bs etc.

    However, I would take issue with the comment that “bicycle tourism doesn’t always require extravagant expensive infrastructure”. I don’t know about the Otago trail in NZ, but there is nothing extravagant or expensive about the Tarka trail, which mainly follows an old railway line. It seems to me that this sort of facility (which is superb, by the way) costs peanuts compared to a new or upgraded road for example.

    I may have mis-understood the context, but I would suggest that bicycle tourism almost NEVER requires “extravagant, expensive infrastructure”. And, not forgetting of course, that such infrastructure also benefits local users as well as us tourists!

    • Rachel Smith

      Thank you for your comment Don. Yes the Tarka Trail is superb (I am originally from North Devon and so very proud of the Tarka Trail!)  
      With regard to my comment  “bicycle tourism doesn’t always require extravagant expensive infrastructure” I was really trying to reinforce that you don’t have to be a council or landowner or have lots of money and grand ideas to be involved in Bicycle Tourism. You could just be a little B&B with cycle parking and a room to dry wet weather gear.
      You are right, some of the most incredible bicycle and sustainable tourism projects in Devon and Cornwall have been done by very small enterprises with heaps of enthusiasm and passion and a very small budget.
      Thank you      

  • Anita Mac

    We have been traveling to cycle for years – it is so sad that some groups like the one you mentioned in NZ resisted it! Cycle tourism is such a brilliant, green form of travel. Most cyclists respect the environment they ride in and it brings such great tourist dollars to the area. It really saddens me to hear that opposition. We travel Mallorca, Spain most years to get in a few weeks of cycling and the tourist dollars brought to the region in what is essentially their low season is incredible! The cyclists travel to parts of the island that the beach worshipping summer tourists never see, spreading the tourist dollar even further!
    Not only that – it is such a healthy and environmentally friendly form of travel – as the obesity numbers rise around the world, we should be promoting the active tourist as opposed to the ones that sit on a bus for the day and look out the window! We can showcase so much more of what our beautiful countries have to offer!
    So glad you were also able to share some success stories! The more the merrier!