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Economist Benje Patterson: bike tourism in plantation forests

Each year thousands of NZers and tourists explore our outdoors on bike. The average mountain bike tourist spends 3 or 4 days on their holiday. And many of them explore our plantation forests. I talked to independent economist Benje Patterson. Patterson has published a report showing that tourists who biked through New Zealand’s production forests in 2022 spent nearly $300 million on things like food, accommodation, and entertainment.


SD: Tēnā koutou. Ko Stephen Day tēnei. Welcome to Herenga ā Nuku’s podcast series Te Ara Hikoi. Mountain biking is big business. Each year thousands of NZers and tourists explore our outdoors on bikes. The average mountain bike tourist spends 3 or 4 days on their holiday. And many of them explore our plantation forests. Today I am talking to independent economist Benje Patterson. Patterson has published a report showing that tourists who biked through New Zealand’s production forests in 2022 spent nearly $300 million on things like food, accommodation, and entertainment. Here’s Patterson outlining some of his key findings:

BP: “I was able to identify at least 96 plantation forests that are currently being actively used for recreational mountain biking. There may be a few more that have in the past been used or ones that theoretically you can access but don’t get a lot of use, so we've basically got 100 where there’s a lot of active use. When you look through what that usage entails, In 2022, there are about 600,000 riders in the forest. Just over half of those were visitors to the host region, with the remainder being local. Now these visitors, there are about 335,000 across the year. Collectively, these visitors spend just shy of $300 million in the host regions they’re visiting that they’ve gone through to bike in.

SD: All that money creates jobs and investment in the host region. Patterson’s report calculates nearly 1500 jobs for cafes, hotels, bike shops and other businesses.

BP: “And you know the best part of $300 million is quite a bit of money…And it’s well spread out through New Zealand, as you can imagine. Our plantation forestry estate goes from the very north to the very south. About 56% of the forests with access are in the North Island and 44% in the South Island.

BP: Within the report, about 30% of those 96 forests were large plantation forests that are over 1500 hectares in size, and about 70% of them are among small forests of under 1500 hectares. Some of that is because of the proximity to urban areas. You are more likely to build access into something that’s relatively convenient for locals or visitors to access and get to.

SD: The tourists in Patterson’s study participated in a wide range of biking activities and access, including commercial bike parks, riding trails, and forestry roads

BP: “It's the whole gambit. The thing is that, basically, to be captured in this study, we're simply talking about someone that's a visitor to the host region. So they don't live within the region where the forest is located, and they've gone there with the main purpose of actually biking. It's not just something incidental that they happen to do while they’re there.

BP: “And those people, they span the whole breadth of ages, stages, abilities and preferences, from people that want to, you know, want to go to a bike park, want to want to go over some jumps to people that are just wanting to have a really cruisy meander along an easy forestry road, you know, somewhere new.

SD: The report also identified significant economic benefits from improved health outcomes for local people who bike more.

BP: “So in the report, I identified about 265,000 people who were riding in forests that were local to them. And when I looked at those people, you don't capture the spending that they spend on their hobby because the idea is that if they spend that on biking, it’s just something in their household budget that they’ve had to take from somewhere else. It’s not new money into the local economy.

BP: “But when it comes to locals, there are really important health benefits from people becoming more active, getting out and about both mental and physical health benefits. Now Waka Kotahi they say that the additional benefits you know from biking are almost $5 per kilometre travelled. So I estimated across the local residents who were biking the forests, assuming that only half the biking was actual additional exercise and not something that would have been a run or a walk somewhere else, I estimated about $130 million of health benefits could potentially be attributed to this biking within our forests.

SD: It’s important not only that there is good access but that local communities are aware of and have a sense of ownership of that access.

BP: “We when we look at biking and our plantation forests, there are multiple parties that help make it happen, but I guess if I was to single out three, you’ve clearly got the forest owners or managers. Without them, you know, the access wouldn’t necessarily be available. You’ve also got the cycling clubs or the cycling trusts, those that are involved in trail building and that kind of thing.

BP: “And then the third one, that’s really important, is actually the destination marketing of what the local area has to offer. So our regional tourism organisations also play a role here. And that’s where you see places like Rotorua NZ has done a fantastic job of marketing what they have to offer.

BP: It's also really good to not just think about it as destination marketing, but also as activating people that cycle as a sport and bringing events into a local area. So having a cycling event in your local forest is also a really good way to raise the profile of what trails you have on offer, and what you can do with them, whether you’re, you know, elite at the pointy end or someone that's backing up the rear and just out to really enjoy themselves in the fresh air.

SD: This research has significant economic implications for forestry companies and their neighbouring communities. Patterson says it is important that forestry companies make public access a long-term commitment.

BP: "It's worthwhile noting that there is future growth potential from a demand perspective. Even if you take relatively conservative assumptions, I can see that over the next five years, the value growing by about 10%. To accommodate this sort of growth style is going to require collaboration with the forest companies and between bike clubs and funders of infrastructure, and for the bike community to support and enable this demand to be met.

BP: “There’s not only significant investment that has to go in in terms of time and also money for associated support infrastructure. But there's also if you are bringing recreational access to an area and wanting it to grow and develop, you need people to be able to expect there for the long term to be able to use. So for a forestry company, there’s going to be a trade-off in that with their harvesting cycle and the extent to which they’re able to offer and commit to having this recreational access.

BP: “But what I would say is I urge companies to make sure that they get in touch with their local biking community, and they work really closely with, you know, with a broad array of stakeholders to really understand the needs and wants of not only the local biking community, but also those other aspects of the community that might not be bikers, but might appreciate you know for social or cultural reasons being able to have access into the local forest.

SD: Patterson notes similar research into the economic value of recreational access to forests in North America. Show that biking is only one part of the economic value. There is also huge potential for horse riding, trail running, tramping, snowmobile riding, cross-country skiing and many other activities.

SD: For communities that live beside plantation forests and for the companies that own those forests, this creates exciting opportunities to collaborate. Creating new public access and enhancing existing public access plays an important role in unlocking that potential.

Thanks for listening. Noho ora mai ki a koutou.