The Politics of Ecotourism: Lessons Learned Cycling in New Zealand

Multimodal connections on trains, buses and ferries provide further options for cyclists traveling in New Zealand. It would make sense for Rhode Island to better connect bicyclers with public transit. (Liza Burkin photos)

Multimodal connections on trains, buses and ferries provide further options for cyclists traveling in New Zealand. It would make sense for Rhode Island to better connect bicyclers with public transit. (Liza Burkin photos)

By LIZA BURKIN

Across the nation and the globe, bicycle-based tourism is on the rise.

More and more people are seeking “authentic experiences” when they travel, and often that means getting out from behind the wheel and into the saddle. Numbers reported from other states’ tourism bureaus are staggering: bicycling visitors annually contribute $66.8 million to the Maine economy; $60 million to North Carolina’s Outer Banks region; $400 million in Oregon.

In the past 15 years, each of these three states has made major public investments in bicycle infrastructure to attract visitors and retain residents seeking to ride. They have since reaped the rewards.

As Rhode Island struggles with its marketing strategy, it’s time to pay attention to the successes of other bicycling and eco-destinations. With our 400 miles of coastline, 49 islands in Narragansett Bay, 60 miles of existing bike path and countless more for walking, the Ocean State has a lot to offer in the way of natural beauty and adventure. But we could sure use an advocate to build and promote access to more of it.

Building bicycle infrastructure in Rhode Island that serves local residents and attracts visitors isn’t an insurmountable design or fiscal challenge — it’s a matter of political will. For bicycling to become a primary and safe method of transportation and recreational activity, the people we elect must care about it and be its champion.

In New Zealand, where I just spent the last four months riding my bike (and spending a chunk of savings), Prime Minister John Key, who is also the minister of tourism, is that person.

In 2009, Key held a Jobs Summit to hear proposals from top business, banking, government and union leaders on how to combat the international economic downturn. There, luxury real-estate developer Graham Wall proposed The New Zealand Cycle Trail — commonly known by its Maori name Nga Haerenga.

His reasoning was that long-distance trails provide jobs, not only in their construction phase, but also in the hospitality and adventure tourism industries upon completion. This had been widely demonstrated by the Otago Central Rail Trail, the oldest, and for a long time only, bike trail in the country.

Branded route signs along the Alps 2 Ocean Trail.

Branded route signs along the Alps 2 Ocean Trail.

Completed in 2000, the 95-mile trail has since generated 200 jobs via its many year-round accommodation options, eateries and bike rental/repair services. Key loved the idea of expanding this success throughout the country, and adopted the project as his own. He committed $50 million in federal funding that was quickly increased by $30 million from local regional councils, and further bolstered by individuals, businesses and nonprofits.

In the ensuing six years, New Zealand has built 1,550 miles of off-road trails spread out amongst 23 “Great Rides.” I had the extreme pleasure of riding on nine of them, and can attest to their greatness.

Each trail has a unique regional flavor, which is brilliantly captured and marketed through individual branding — each has its own logo, website, route signs, merchandise and brochures. Most importantly, each has its own local partners — hotels, restaurants, bike services and nearby attractions. Some even partner with low-cost ferries exclusively for trail users when there is a water crossing. All is designed for maximum ease and enjoyment.

And it’s paying off. According to a 2013 Tourism New Zealand profile, 318,000 international tourists participated in cycling during the past five years. These cycling visitors spend more money, stay longer and have higher satisfaction rates compared with other travelers.

In this hour of embarrassment over our state marketing fiasco, there are lessons to be learned from Key and the Kiwis. New Zealand is marketed abroad as a clean, green adventure playground, which directly influenced my decision to spend four months there. Far from just cyclists, New Zealand attracts outdoor enthusiasts of all persuasions.

Perhaps instead of inane temperature descriptions, we should be devoting our tourism marketing dollars to promoting and protecting the beautiful Rhode Island we call home. And making sure that the officials we elect this November are behind it.

Liza Burkin is a Rhode Island resident.