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The New Zealand Cycle Trail is a 1,500-mile network of 19 “Great Rides” currently being built across New Zealand with tourism and economic benefits in mind.

aoorw From the Spring 2012 American Trails Magazine


New Zealand Cycle Trail: great rides with a focus on tourism

By Sarah Berry, NZ Ministry of Economic Development

The story of Nga Haerenga, The New Zealand Cycle Trail, a network of 19 “Great Rides” currently being built across New Zealand is both unique and inspirational. With 1000 miles already built and 1500 miles planned, these 19 iconic Great Rides are expected to be completed by early 2013.

photo of bikes on mountain trail

St. James Cycle Trail, Hamner Springs (photo from St. James Cycle Trail)

Marketed as the 100% pure adventure playground of the world, New Zealand, is one of the most untouched natural wildernesses on earth.

New Zealand is the birthplace of the bungy jump and a magnet for international tourists seeking adrenaline-filled adventures including mountain climbing, to jetboating, heli-hiking, tramping, skiing, and snowboarding. In recent years, the country has become strongly focused on maximising the export return from a potentially limitless international tourism market.

The importance of the tourism industry also gained a particularly high profile in October 2008, when New Zealand Prime Minister Rt. Hon John Key decided to become Minister of Tourism. With tourism contributing close to 10% of New Zealand’s Gross Domestic Product, as well as directly and indirectly employing nearly one in ten New Zealanders, Mr. Key’s decision reflected the importance of the industry to New Zealand.

The big idea

In February 2009, grappling with the need to limit the impact of an international recession, the New Zealand Government hosted a one-day job summit bringing together some of the county’s top minds and business leaders to map out innovative ideas to keep New Zealand’s economy growing. One of the most popular, if “left field” projects to emerge from the summit, was the plan to build a national cycleway.

photo of white spiky bridge

The Whale bridge (photo by Kennett Bros)

The idea was to build a network of cycle trails that would not only be a healthy and enjoyable way for Kiwis and international visitors to see the country, but would also provide lasting economic, social, and environmental benefits for New Zealand communities.

The Government invested $NZ50 million into the New Zealand Cycle Trail project over three financial years (2009-2012).

Prime Minister John Key says, “New Zealand is an outstanding visitor destination, and there’s no doubt that one of the best ways to explore it is by cycling. The New Zealand Cycle Trail is designed to showcase the very best of our country – our spectacular scenery, unique culture, and first-class Kiwi hospitality. We have embraced the cycle trail as a way to build a valuable new asset for the tourism industry, with lasting economic benefits.The cycle trail builds on our strong reputation as a premium tourism destination. It will bring important export dollars into our economy, provide a welcome boost to businesses, and create jobs in communities near the trails.”

New Zealand Cycle Trail Programme Manager John Dunn says the vision, based on sound economic planning, was to create immediate jobs through construction of the cycle trails and longer term jobs via the increased tourism demand that a network of cycle trails would bring. There would also be complimentary health, environmental, and recreational benefits for both New Zealanders and visitors from offshore.

photo of bikes riding along cliff

Mountain bikers on the Old Ghost Road Trail

“Our objective is to promote New Zealand as a global cycling destination and encourage visitors to ride our network of Great Rides. The brand Nga Haerenga means “the journeys,” both in a physical and spiritual sense, and this is exactly the sort of experience we want visitors to New Zealand to enjoy,” Mr. Dunn says.

The Great Rides will be inspirational. They will take travellers through subtropical fern forests of the far North Island, along historic military and old coach roads, to breathtaking lake and mountain views, past wild beaches, and through rainforests and lush wetlands.

They will offer cyclists the chance to ride through the cool of the New Zealand bush; dense with fern, dappled with light, where the only sound is the call of native birds loud above the hum of a bike. Or, to experience a trail that will round a wide sweeping bend to a view that simply takes their breath away – stunning snowcapped peaks mirrored in a deep, still lake.

Economic value

The cycle trail also gained strong support from the Green Party of Aotearoa, New Zealand, which became a key partner in the project. Green Party Member of Parliament Kevin Hague, a keen cyclist, who has attended almost every cycle trail event throughout the country to date, says cycle trail networks are not only good for people and the planet, but they also make great economic sense.

photo of bikes with sheep blocking road

Sharing the road on the Around the Mountains Trail, Queenstown
(photo from Around the Mountains Trail)

“Cycle tourists tend to stay longer and spend more, with the benefits spread across the regions they are in,” Mr. Hague says.

The New Zealand Cycle Trail model has a highly successful precedent overseas. The United Kingdom National Cycle Network (SUSTRANS) was started with seed funding of £43 million (about $US 68 million) in 1995. That network now consists of over 10,000 miles of signed cycle routes carrying 386 million journeys in 2008. That usage realised £270 million (about $US 427 million) in health savings and offered potential carbon emissions savings of 493,000 tonnes.

“For every £1 ($US 1.50) spent on the United Kingdom's cycle network, they're now realising up to £18-40 in benefits, particularly where the cycleway runs through urban areas,” Mr. Hague adds.

A trail builder’s dream

The job of bringing the network of Great Rides into reality was allocated to New Zealand’s Ministry of Economic Development, which then offered regional communities the chance to pitch funding applications to develop cycle trails across the country. “A project of this magnitude is any trail builder’s dream, but in reality, the selection process was far from easy,” Mr. Dunn says.

photo of bikes by steaming creekT

Thermal by Bike Trail, Rotorua (photo from Thermal by Bike Trail)

“We realised early on that localised community ownership for each cycle trail would be critical to the ongoing success of the individual trails. So, rather than simply going out and building a network of trails, the Ministry set up a process to work in partnership with local government, cycling advocacy groups and local communities to make each trail a success. A fundamental factor towards stimulating economic development was that each regional trail partner was required to put forward co-funding for the trail which they wanted to build in their region,” Mr. Dunn says.

“This co-funding is often being used to enhance the overall local experience for riders. An excellent example of this is a project which will see 6,000 native trees planted on the Twin Coast Cycle Trail in the Far North. This is being made possible by a $40,000 grant from a major energy company,” Mr. Dunn adds.

With around 60 funding applications to review, the Ministry’s advisors along with regional trail partners, and an expert panel known as the Technical Assessment Group had started construction on the first of the 19 Great Rides by early 2010.

photo of tall steel bridge

The 932-foot long Hapuawhenua Bridge on the Mountains to Sea Trail, Ruapehu, New Zealand

Construction progress

Roll forward to February 2012 and progress is now well underway. Three Great Rides have been completed and opened, construction on the remaining Great Rides is well underway and 11 more of the Great Rides already have sections that are open and in use.

One of the highlights of the trail build has been the chance to include more than 400 bridges on the cycle trails, many of which are expected to provide a major draw card and attraction for tourists.

“The 932 foot long Hapuawhenua Bridge on the Mountains to Sea Trail, located on the edge of New Zealand’s largest active volcano, offers outstanding views over native forest and woodlands. Meanwhile the Te Rewa Rewa Bridge on New Plymouth’s Forgotten World Highway, reminiscent of both a breaking wave and whale skeleton has already won two significant international awards,” Mr. Dunn says.

On-road cycle touring routes

If the Ministry’s project team wasn’t already busy enough, the Great Rides are also being progressively linked with other largely on-road cycling touring routes, the first three of which were launched in the North Island town of Taumarunui in August 2011.

“The original idea for the cycle routes grew out of our desire to enable cycle tourists to get from urban centres onto the Great Rides and between the Great Rides using quiet and safer back country roads. These cycle routes will encourage cyclists and cycle tourists to use safer and more enjoyable cycling routes and steer them away from busy state highways,” Mr. Dunn says.

photo of bikes, mountains, and lake

classic scenery along the Around the Mountains Trail
(photo from Around the Mountains Trail)

Another positive for the project this year has been the news that the Otago Central Rail Trail, New Zealand’s most famous pre-existing cycle trail, has just agreed to partner up with the cycle trail project to take advantage of mass marketing all of the trails to the world.

The latest user survey report from the Otago Central Rail Trail in June 2011 showed that this trail now brings $NZ12.2 million into the local economy every year. That’s up a significant $NZ5 million from the last report done in 2009.

Achieving the vision

With four more Great Rides expected to open by May 2012, marketing gurus at New Zealand’s main tourism agency, Tourism New Zealand, are now revving up to market The New Zealand Cycle Trail to the world.

The project has brought on board well-known New Zealand Olympic Gold Medallist Sarah Ulmer as an ambassador to help promote trails, and the cycle trail has already been featured at several international trade shows and in a range of international media. The trail has launched a consumer focused website where riders can start planning their cycling itineraries as well as a series of individual trail websites.

And, the project has also recently launched an Official Partner Programme to encourage local businesses to partner up with their local trails to offer services such as cycle tour guiding, transport, and accommodation to make the Great Ride experiences as easily accessible as possible for tourists.

There are already dozens of examples of businesses and communities beginning to reap the benefits of the trails at a local level, Mr. Dunn says. “Rather than encouraging major risk taking, we’re encouraging businesses to take gradual steps and look to benefit from the trails sensibly as the numbers of riders using the trails build. There’s a ski shop, TCB Adventure Sport, near the Mountains to Sea Trail in Ohakune for example, that used to only be open over the winter ski season. With a new cycle trail on their doorstep, this business has now expanded its range to offer bikes and bike accessories. They’ve now been able to take on new staff and keep the shop open right through the year, renting and selling bikes through the summer season. That’s a great outcome with a real positive impact in the local town.”

And the benefits aren’t all economic. Further north, on Northland’s Twin Coast Cycle Trail a local district health board has gifted bikes to a local school making it possible for school children to ride to and from school along the new cycle trail. It’s a great example of community collaboration, bringing important health and educational benefits to the region.

photo of bridge with snow-capped volcano

Te Rewa Rewa Bridge, Forgotten World Highway, New Plymouth
(photo by Kennett Bros)

Looking back on the project, Mr. Dunn says there are plenty of lessons that have been learned along the way. “Probably the most important advice to pass on to others is the message to communicate and collaborate. When you build a trail, the best thing you can do is empower the local community to take early ownership of their trail project themselves.”

“Access is critical to success. Up front, you need to be able to speak one-on-one with landowners and get them on board as advocates for the project. You need to be a good listener, flexible and patient but most importantly, you need to build trust with the local community. Only then can you get the job done,” Mr. Dunn says. “These cycle trails will offer safe, smooth paths into some of New Zealand’s most untouched wilderness. They will give access to nature that previously, only the very fit could access - and that’s an achievement to be truly proud of.”

“The groups behind the 19 Great Rides have put in a huge amount of passion and energy to get the projects built, much of it voluntary,” Mr. Dunn says. "What they've been able to achieve is magnificent."

Key Facts – The New Zealand Cycle Trail

For more information:

New Zealand Cycle Trail:

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