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A new report from economist Benje Patterson shows at least $291 million was spent by bike tourists who cycled through New Zealand’s production plantation forests last year — Queenstown, Dunedin and Wānaka coming in the top six areas to attract visitor dollars.
Forests attracting riders to Otago included Ben Lomond near Queenstown; Signal Hill, Silverpeaks and Waipori near Dunedin and Sticky Forest near Wānaka.
Rotorua’s forests attracted the most visitor spend — a whopping $111 million — and the next four areas, Auckland, Queenstown, Dunedin and greater Christchurch, brought in a combined spend of $80 million.
While many people were aware of New Zealand’s large timber and log exports industry, most would not realise recreational bike access to forests was also a key element of regional visitor economies, Mr Patterson said.
Spending associated with bike tourists to plantation forests had also grown by two-thirds since before Covid.
"To put the estimate of $291 million of spending by bike visitors to production forests in perspective — total spending by visitors along the New Zealand Cycle Trail network was estimated at $951 million in 2021," Mr Patterson said.
It is not just visitors reaping the benefits of recreational access to plantation forests.
Nationwide, at least 96 plantation forests are used for recreational mountainbiking; local residents accounted for 265,000 of the 600,000 riders in the forests over the past year and the remaining 335,000 were visitors to the host region.
"Anything that gets people off the couch is a good thing for mental and physical health — using cycling benefit rates from Waka Kotahi [NZ Transport Agency], it is estimated that the additional cycling by local residents in plantation forests is worth as much as $130 million in health benefits," Mr Patterson said.
The research also highlighted opportunities for future growth, as there was potential for the sector to grow by 9.5% over the next five years, increasing it to $318 million.
"But realising future growth opportunities for mountainbiking in New Zealand’s production forests isn’t a given and will require delivering unique and exciting bike experiences," he said.
Trail managers would need to focus not only on building high-quality trails and associated infrastructure, but also developing strong partnerships with local forestry companies and solid governance models.
"And finally, trail managers and forestry owners need to focus on sustainable practices that protect the forest and ensure its long-term viability for recreational access," Mr Patterson said.