I’ve got good news and bad news.
The good news is that there’s a way to pump millions of dollars into local economies, support small businesses, protect the environment, encourage regional travel, help supplement disappearing industrial jobs, repurpose waste sites, and promote physical health and entrepreneurship all at the same time.
The bad news is that nobody’s talking about it.
Such is the plight of bicycle tourism in the United States. Without a trending buzzword attached to it, and lacking a handful of billion-dollar private startups vying for industry dominance, the boring ol’ concept of exploring by bike has remained conspicuously absent from SEO-friendly headlines. Well no more.
Such a global phenomenon holds serious potential not only for bike shops, but for communities and businesses across the US. In fact, it may already be at work in municipalities not far from where you live. And it deserves its day in the sun.
So just in case you’re among the many who haven’t been brought up to speed, allow us to give you a crash course in one of the most exciting (and underrated) developments in the modern cycling world.
BOOM IN POPULARITY
It might surprise you to learn that bicycle tourism took center stage at this year’s ITB Berlin in March. For anyone unacquainted with the gathering, ITB Berlin is the single largest travel trade show in the world. When the good folks in Germany host a headline symposium to “explain how and why cycle tourism has developed from a niche product to a booming sector,” you’d be wise to pay close attention.
Chief among the reasons given to explain its increase in popularity is the continued development of cycling infrastructure globally; a point that was hammered home when EuroVelo announced the most recent update to their gargantuan 15-trail cycling network in Europe.
This seems to jive with the figures on the other side of the Atlantic as well. According to the Adventure Cycling Association, the US bicycle route system has grown by some 66% over the past two years, bringing with it a sizeable uptick in bicycle tourism numbers. In fact, Montana just unanimously overturned a bill that would have taxed visiting cyclists $25, citing potential damage to a bicycle tourism industry that adds an estimated $377 million to the state’s coffers every year.
ECONOMIC BENEFITS OF BICYCLE TOURISM
Did that $377 million in Montana catch your eye? Good, because that’s just the tip of the economic iceberg. In 2012, the Outdoor Industry Association recorded bicycle tourism-related sales in the US at a whopping $70.7 billion per year (more when you tack on indirect economic benefits). That makes it the 2nd highest grossing outdoor recreation category overall behind camping.
Since then, the numbers have only been on an upward trajectory. Take Squamish in British Columbia, for example. In 2006, mountain bike tourism generated $2.3 million in revenues for the region. 10 years later, that figure more than quadrupled to $9.9 million according to a district study.
All of this makes sense given what Pew reported in 2015: on average, cyclists tend to “stay longer…and spend more per day than other tourists.” These increases can be fairly modest, like the 6% reported in Quebec in 2014. They can also be significant, like in Graubuenden, Switzerland where mountain bikers reportedly spend up to 24% more than other tourists per person/per day.
You can almost visualize the positive feedback loop taking place. As trail systems continue to improve and expand, the popularity of bicycle tourism spreads with them, giving more of the tourists who spend more of their money more places to go.
Put Bicycle Tourism to Work for Your Bike Shop:
SMALL BUSINESS BOON
Direct travel spending isn’t the only benefit spurred on by bicycle tourism, either. In small towns devastated by the loss of industrial jobs, cycling has literally breathed new entrepreneurial life into flatlining economies.
As Outside Online reported earlier this week, the former iron mining town of Crosby, Minnesota has added 15 new businesses since transforming their disfigured landscape into an IMBA-rated trail system in 2011. These enterprises range from yoga studios to sleep-away cabins, all designed to capitalize on the influx of mountain bike tourists who will reportedly add $21 million to the local economy every year by the time the trail system is completed.
Similar metamorphoses are occurring all over the world. In Australia, the diminutive town of Derby is experiencing a small-business revival after 100 km of mountain biking trails replaced its defunct tree felling and tin mining operations. As one local bike shop owner put it, “Pride is the biggest impact. Young people now have some hope they can stay in this region.”
You may be noticing a pattern here: environmentally damaging employers move out, environmentally friendly bicycle tourism moves in.
For mountain bikers in particular, the diverse terrains resulting from activities like mining and logging create literal adventure playgrounds to be cleaned, restored, and ridden. This, in turn, gives damaged ecosystems a chance to reclaim their native habitats.
The formula even works for large cities as well. In Chicago, what was once an abused heavy metal dump on the city’s south side today houses the biggest bike park in the Midwest. Developers hope Big Marsh, which opened in late 2016 at a fraction of the cost of remediation, will attract bicycle tourists who might otherwise have looked past the Windy City towards greener pastures.
If all of this is painting a pretty rosy picture of bicycle tourism, well – that’s the point. There are no discernable down sides to this industry (except maybe for calf-enfy). And as travelers continue to demand more authentic experiences while on the road, it’s particularly well positioned to expand long after the publication of this article.
Which should give more industrious minds pause. It’s not everyday that trends this positive come along, with the ability to do so much good for both the environment and local economies. Whether you’re a bike shop owner or a county legislator, it’s probably time to ask yourself (if you haven’t already) what you’re doing to tap into all of this unsung potential.