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by David Mozer

Less-Developed Countries & Bicycle Tourism

  • A group of Zambians wants to promote cultural tours to Zambia (by bike) and says the government is moving away from its promotion of high end tourism and wants to promote 'eco-tourism'. Worldwide 'eco-tourism' is growing, but bicycle tourism is hardly in the picture. How can people who are interested in bicycle-tourism and cultural-tourism use 'eco-tourism' to build their programs?
  • For decades villagers in southern Senegal have been building a network of interesting, well located village-owned and operated hostels. They are low-energy consuming, bicycle-friendly and ideal for cultural-tourism. Where tourism has taken a different form are the benefits any different from classic tourism characterized by the fortress-tourist hotel?
  • Huge increases in light and heavy motor-vehicles, in India, are congesting roads, devastating air quality and raising noise pollution. Besides forcing a dramatic reduction in local use of bicycles and destroying historic structures, it is said to be deterring tourists from abroad. How should the tourism industry be involved in protecting environmental quality?
  • Momo, a young entrepreneur, in a remote village in Togo (very suitable for bicycle access), built some bedrooms to house guests, laid out interpretive walks through the near-by farms and forest, planned meals and organized students to perform traditional music and dance for evening entertainment. It was a favorite stop for the group I was with, but guests only stop a couple times a year. Momo went to the national tourism office for help in publicizing it. They refused because his project was too small.
  • On a bicycle tour of Tunisia, the favorite hotels were several 'no-star' lodgings that reflected the unique architecture of the area. The country is in the midst of a ten-thousand hotel room building boom -- none are in any of the simple, energy efficient and bicycle-friendly traditional styles!
  • It is generally assumed that tourism is good -- a God-send for non- industrialized countries -- that 'eco-tourism' is the best, and that bicycle tourism is at or near the top of the list of eco-tourism. Let's look at these assumptions and the environmental, economic and cultural elements of tourism and bicycle-tourism.

    The World Tourism Organization estimates that tourist arrivals worldwide will grow from 528 million in 1994 to 661 million in 2000. In 1994, Europe accounted for 59.6 percent of world tourist arrivals, the Americas 20.5 percent, Asia and the Pacific 14.8 percent, Africa 3.5 percent and the Middle East 1.5 percent. The majority of this is consumptive, energy intensive tourism, and has nothing to do with eco- or bicycle-tourism.

    Classic tourism revolves around motor-vehicle tours and homogeneous energy-intensive destination resorts that feature a primary activity: beach, golf, skiing, wildlife -- often in hot or cold destinations which require extra energy-consuming cooling or heating. A lot of the industry is owned by international corporations -- local residents aren't stockholders who benefit from the profits. In less-developed countries, outside the walls of the fortress hotels, there is often no easy access to safe drinking water, no electricity, and no new schools or clinics. Public works like roads and airports are built for tourism, not to the priorities of local people. The job creation is low-wage, low-skill cleaners, cooks, waiters, bartenders, gardeners, drivers and prostitutes. Hardly the skills of nation building. Much of the tourist's activity is independent of the culture and society of the destination. If considered, the cultural complexity of the area is only an amusement. Too often, when tourists do venture into the community the depth of the interaction is rewarding begging children, buying trinkets and patronizing discos and prostitutes -- undermining the last of the local pride and dignity. Generally, it is all consumptive and fails tests of sustainability for traditional values and culture. Rather than being a 'smokeless industry' with high development returns on investment, tourism brings a degradation of cultural heritage and the natural environment, and stratifies economic classes.

    In Europe you can board a bus (motor-coach) and see seven countries in seven days. It is about the same in Asia and the Americas. There is an interesting twist in Africa: Any driving tour of America's great national parks or of Europe's magnificent mountain ranges would never be considered 'eco-tourism', but in Africa, a mixture of myth and romance has given gas guzzling Land Rovers and Mercedes trucks the mantle of 'environmentally- friendly'. Motor-vehicle tours (seven-game-parks-in-seven-days) are now marketed as 'eco-tourism'.

    For local tourism, tourists are channeled towards bus tours of the city, boat tours of the harbor or walking tours of a museum. There is very little development of intermediate level activities.

    On the bright side, there are an increasing number of alternatives. Work camps allow people to immerse themselves at least for a brief period in the community in which they are working.   And, you can now participate on an organized rural-based bike tour to every corner of the globe. Companies will take you cycling in less touristed parts of Africa, Alaska, Argentina and Australia.

    The bicycle community likes to see bicycles as all that is good. But just because a program is 'bicycle tourism' does it warrant the high praise that bicycle commuting receives in the urban transport venue?

    Clearly bicycle tours are more active, and sometimes more interactive than sight-seeing by car, van or bus. But ironically, they may not be any more environmentally-friendly. When 'bicycle tours' haul their clients and equipment with buses and trucks to new locations each day for day-rides and then bus and truck them back to the tourist enclave, the environmental benefit is smudged. Even for itineraries that are primarily by bike, once you calculate the slow-speed miles of the support and gear vehicle (SAG) going back and forth hauling baggage and picking up stragglers, per person fuel consumption can be equivalent to that of the group driving the route. When you add to this the use of the energy-intensive hotels, bicycle tourism has about the same energy profile as other tourism. If the group camps and cooks for themselves, they can improve their energy profile, but lessen their support of the local economy.

    When bicycle-tourists forego the SAG the conservation benefits accumulate much more clearly. Even if the travelers lessen their baggage by leaving camping equipment at home, and opt for simple hotels, this strategy still gets close to true eco-tourism. Staying in community hotels also provides more opportunity interact with local people. Patronizing cafes and local markets makes the economic impact broader and more direct. Hopefully this experience will also lead to the traveler taking more of an interest in the local culture and society.

    While the 'bicycle-way' offers noble experiences, increasing its popularity is likely to be like going uphill into a head-wind -- slow. All around the messages of tourism and the momentum for how people choose to spend their holidays are pointing in a different directions. We need some behavioral changes.

    To change a pattern of behavior it is useful to understand what drives it: most westerners' choice of leisure activities reflect their measurement of a 'successful holiday'. When success is calculated in how many entries you have in your passport, how many continents you have played golf on, how many elephants you've seen, how many rolls of film you've shot or how many amenities the resort has, environmentally-friendly/culturally sensitive tourism will be rolling up an incline. To change the tourism we have to change the ethics and goals of tourists. Is tourism to turn someone else's scenic backyard (and front-yard) into the playground of any foreigner who can pay for it. Or, does tourism have certain responsibilities when it comes to visit? What standards should be met for 'environmentally-friendly'? To what extent should it benefit the local economy? And to what extent are visitors responsible for respecting the local culture? Activists who are interesting in changing tourism must first work to reshape the values -- from quantitative to qualitative -- that people use to measure their holidays.

    Equal to the requirement for a change in the tourist's behavior and expectations is the need for hosts to attract the 'bicycle tourists' and to facilitate their stay.

    In contrast to the vignette on India at the beginning, positive stories comes from Greece and Columbia: In Athens, traffic has been banned in the historic and commercial district, presenting Athenians with a city not seen for decades. "This is amazing. I haven't seen the center like this since I was a child," said a woman, strolling near the Acropolis. Shopkeepers predict better business. High school students painted murals on the sidewalks. One reads "Looks like paradise". In Bogota, when the main thoroughfare is closed to traffic on Sundays people emerge by the tens-of- thousands to walk and bicycle through the center of town. Tourism in general and perhaps more so bicycle tourism, depends on the quality of the environment, so preserving the environment and raising environmental awareness are fundamental to the long term health of bicycle-tourism.

    A bicycle-friendly social climate and infrastructure is the next level of preparation to welcome bicycle tourism. The bicycle activity by local people is a good indicator. If levels of bicycle use by residents is growing or already high, it is a good indication that it will be good cycling for visitors. If bicycle transportation is on the wane by residents, it is probably time to address the physical and social climate for cycling.

    The necessary level of development of bicycle tourism infrastructure depends on the level of user you intend or expect to attract. If the users are novice tourers, facilities (drinks and snacks) should be 10-15 km (6-10 miles) apart. For light touring it is usually adequate to have services, including meals, available every 25-30 km (15-18 miles) unless there is some climatic extreme. Cyclists of moderate ability can be expected to carry the food and water they need for 50-60 km (30-36 miles) before needing to restock, have a hearty meal and rest for the night. If services are only available every 80-100 km (50-62 miles), you can expect to attract only serious cyclists. Roads can be awful but if the accommodations excel a bike tour can be successful -- and it's not related to the number of stars in the hotel rating. The important qualities might not be what you expect. Key features are: access to registration, access to rooms, bike security and washing facilities. An added plus are design features that gives the place a little character (i.e. courtyards, gardens, local architecture or graphics) and an inviting and well maintained approach and entrance.

    Cyclists arrive at their accommodations at the end of the day when they are tired and as always, concerned about the security of their bikes. Hotels with reception areas on the ground floor get a plus because it is usually easier to keep an eye on the bikes while going in to inquire about room availability, rates and conditions. As a rule, hotels with large rooms on the ground floor, where the bikes can stay in the room are preferred. Even if there is a storage room on the ground floor, this is second best because if people need to do bike maintenance in the evening they have to arrange to get the key. My experience has been that it is not of critical importance that there are baths in every room, but washrooms must be clean.

    Another element that is always nice is service with a smile.  People in every culture know how to smile.  For the traveler it is always nice if they bring it to work.  For a start, the watchman in front should greet visitors with friendliness and not a weary oh-bother-not-another-one expression.  At reception, guests should again be welcomed with a smile and when they are taken to their room, a cheerful person should accompany them.  It takes very little and makes a big impression for the housekeepers to also greet a passing visitor with a courteous "good morning" or "good afternoon."  I know so businesses that have lost business from our groups because there were rude hangers-on clustered around the entrance. Friendliness and good manners go a long way.

    Multi-day tours are not how most people are going start bicycle touring. Most potential bicycle-tourers will be drawn towards tours that are a few hours to a day long. To further encourage bicycling, promoters (i.e. national, state or provincial tourism offices, chambers of commerce, local communities, bike clubs, the bicycle industry) should narratively and literally map out short excursions the bicycle-bound visitor can follow. What is of interest in the areas of architecture, art, botany, culture, education, geology, government, history, industry, music, parks, politics, religion, women and zoology? I venture that every city has its themes: 'public art', 'ethnic communities & their story', 'architecture through the century', 'gardens, parks & views' and 'notorious citizens: skid row to the archdiocese' around which bicycle tours can be structured. Develop and publish itineraries and maps for 2 hour, half- and full-day programs. With this initiate, guides must know their stuff.  Many travelers will be well traveled.  Guides shouldn't underestimate their knowledge and give them any old answer just to keep them quiet.  The visitors will probably see through this and the guide can do irreparable damage to the companies credibility.

    Bicycle travel can be frustrating and impractical when you need to worry about securing your bike and baggage while making stops along the route. I am always favorably impressed when restaurateurs and agents at sites (museums, ruins, etc.) invites me to bring my bike inside or helps me make sure that the bike will be secure doing my visit. Establishments that might serve bicyclists need to be made aware of their needs.

    It will take a lot of work to create dramatic increases in bicycle tourism. We can start by: protecting the environment, making the society and infrastructure bicycle-friendly, informing the businesses how to serve bicyclists and then getting the word out that bicycle tourism is fun and exciting!

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    For related information see Code of Responsible Travel and article on Tips For Environmental Toursim.

    IBF's Bicycle / Development / Sustainability Bibliography / Reading List

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