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Jun 7, 2024

TIABC Voice of Tourism Newsletter – June 7, 2024

TIABC

Watching a lone cyclist saddled with heavy gear struggling to make his way up a long steep hill on Highway 5 (Yellowhead) a couple of weeks ago, I wondered where he planned to sleep that night considering he was well over 100 kilometres away from any hotel/motel, campground or other amenity one might need after such a gruelling climb. My guess is he pitched a tent somewhere in the woods once his legs finally gave out.

As the cyclist quickly faded to oblivion in my rear-view mirror, it struck me that as a province we still have a ways to go to develop the kind of infrastructure needed to attract tourists from all over the world who love bike touring. To be sure, there are wonderful riding trails and routes in the Thompson Okanagan and elsewhere in BC, just not enough of them or at the advanced stage to effectively market and lure the lucrative, long-distance cycling tour segment.

Conversely, one element of cycling that has taken off in virtually every region is mountain biking. The sector is booming with countless mature and new backcountry trails, bike parks, retail and service shops, as well as clubs and communities whose primary tourism offering caters to riders of all ages and abilities.

British Columbia is not only home to some of the best back (and front) country trails in North America, we also have many world-renowned bike parks that attract high-yield visitors from every part of the globe. Our reputation on the international mountain biking stage is growing every year.

While in Valemount for a tourism celebration over the May long weekend, our group stopped by the local bike park which was teeming with riders, many who came to town for the express purpose of conquering some of the 146 kms of trails built by staff and volunteers of the Valemount & Area Recreation and Development Association (VARDA).

On the surface, all is well for riders in the northern reach of the Rocky Mountain Trench but as I learned from VARDA’s General Manager (Curtis Pawliuk), and more recently from the head of Western Canada Mountain Biking Tourism Association (Martin Littlejohn – WCMBTA), the popularity of mountain biking presents several challenges for local clubs throughout BC that need to be resolved soon to ensure this form of recreational activity remains sustainable.

Advocates like Martin and Curtis tell me there is inadequate funding for trail maintenance, operations and infrastructure in many areas, and counting on annual grants is futile. Most trail systems and bike parks rely on volunteers, which are harder to come by these days. Moreover, many more volunteers are desperately needed for ongoing upkeep, improvements, construction, clean-up, and other duties as necessary to maintain the infrastructure. To add to the mix, obtaining approvals and navigating government bureaucracy is also challenging, especially in today’s ever-changing regulatory environment. Plus, the layers of agencies, land managers, and various other stakeholders complicate matters even further, never mind access restrictions, mitigating risk and liability, managing negative land impacts, and trying to figure out how to operate in the context of DRIPA, among other concerns.

Funding and capacity issues were on most delegates’ minds at the recent Mountain Bike Symposium in Naramata where TIABC presented virtually on myriad problems facing BC’s tourism sub-sectors, including mountain biking. Our plan is to work with WCMBTA in the coming months to find ways to tackle the challenges and embrace opportunities to make the mountain bike tourism sector more sustainable…although neither objective will be simple nor quick.

In the meantime, the Ministry of Jobs, Economic Development and Innovation is developing an economic impact model to assess the contribution from outdoor recreation (which includes tourism), while WCMBTA is working on its own data research project to better understand trail user volumes and the important role that mountain bike tourism clubs and trail organizations play in managing resources. Both of these initiatives are sure to add much-needed information to the conversation. 

Whenever I see cyclists on a remote stretch of highway somewhere in the province, I not only wonder about where they’re headed, but I’m also curious as to why they chose this particular route, how they stay focussed and motivated when climbing long hills, are they having fun, what wildlife have they encountered, what gear are they carrying, and a dozen other questions I’d love to ask. Perhaps one day I’ll encounter a cyclist at a rest-stop and fire away to satisfy my curiosity. Or better still, embark on a long-distance ride to find out for myself.

Walt Judas,

CEO, TIABC

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