Social impacts of cycle trails on small towns and settlements

The A2O is a 300km, mostly off-road, cycle trail that descends from the base of Aoraki Mt Cook in the national park, through several small settlements located in the Waitaki Valley, before reaching the regional town of Oamaru on the Pacific coast. Photo: Mike Mackay, AgResearch.

Prior to the Covid-19 lockdowns, Building Better researchers, Dr Mike Mackay, a Senior Social Scientist at AgResearch, Dr Nick Taylor, Nick Taylor and Associates, and Emeritus Prof Harvey Perkins, People and Places, assessed the impacts of the South Island’s Alps to Ocean (A2O) cycle-trail. The study focussed on the sustainability of tourist trails and how associated tourism initiatives were working together to improve the economic, social, and environmental performance of the town of Oamaru and settlements in the Waitaki Valley.

The A2O is a 300km, mostly off-road, cycle trail that descends from the base of Aoraki Mt Cook in the national park, through several small settlements located in the Waitaki Valley, before reaching the regional town of Oamaru on the Pacific coast. Both the trail and the businesses and infrastructure along its path are still in development. The trail crosses mountain landscapes, alpine lakes, hydro-electricity canals, a large braided-river system, and several geological features.

The A2O originated as a local initiative to develop a project with positive impacts for settlements along the trail, and the larger town of Oamaru. Positive outcomes are expected for local business and employment, along with an enhanced recreational environment and heritage protection. Importantly, the initiative has received funding from central government and has the involvement of the Waitaki District Council in project management and dealing with local issues, such as property access over private farm land.

Social Impacts

The researchers sought to identify the effects of the trail, through the central themes of better, more integrated planning and assessment of regeneration initiatives and more sustainable development of tourism in the longer term. Data collection used mixed methods, including in-depth interviews and participant observation. Secondary, qualitative data included historical records, documentary research, reports, studies, media coverage, census data, economic and employment data, and GIS maps.

They found that the A2O is helping, with caveats, to diversify and revitalise the district’s economy and small towns along the way in four distinct ways.

“We noted a direct positive effect of trail-related expenditure, which has boosted the revenue of many tourist service providers,” says Nick.

“But the challenge is to ensure tourists and tourism revenue are dispersed evenly through the district to ensure the whole trail is a success, rather than just parts of it.”

“Better dispersal of tourists would also be better for easing any strain on the local infrastructure, the natural environment, and heritage resources.”

A second positive effect of the trial is the increased investment in the upkeep of heritage buildings. An increase in tourist numbers along the trail has prompted some locals, including farmers, often with help from outside investors, to purchase and convert old rural buildings (e.g., churches, woolsheds, old rail stations, disused pubs) into accommodation, agri-tourism attractions, bike shops, and/or hospitality services, such as cafes, for visiting cyclists.

“A side effect of the A2O is the significant impact on the conservation of built rural heritage across the region, a process that has happened in less than five years along the trail,”

Thirdly, the researchers found that the trail has provided a much-needed economic boost for some small rural towns and the impetus for local entrepreneurial experimentation in tourism.

“This is particularly evident in the small neighbouring villages of Duntroon and Kurow, where old buildings have been, or are in the process of being repurposed to accommodate new enterprises that serve cycle tourists. Another example is the village of Otematata, a small rural community of 186 people near the mid-point of the trail. In the late 1950s, this was a hub for workers and their families who were constructing two hydro-electricity dams – the town’s population peaked at around 4,000 people in the 1960s. Since then the town’s population and economy has dwindled. The residents expect that the trail will diversify and revitalise their local economy and pointed to examples of new local business activity that was prompted by it.”

Mike notes that there were ongoing local tensions about the best ways to promote the area and its sites to visitors in a cohesive way. “In addition to the A2O, the region is the site of a geopark, and home to Steam Punk and Victorian Heritage communities, who host numerous festivals and events. Efforts to promote different areas, festivals, and events reflect the growth of these initiatives over time, each with leadership, energy, and local organisation. It’s likely that in the longer term, and for larger-scale initiatives such as the A2O, a common approach is needed for promotion with a consistent marketing message. But to sustain multiple local efforts, care is needed to balance enterprise, site, and event promotion with any wider branding in the district, so that enterprises and individuals are encouraged to take part.”

“The integrative potential of the trail, used effectively, could see communities adopt a common approach to sustainable tourism management and enhanced social wellbeing. This approach is particularly important in a post-covid era as businesses that depend on visitors such as cyclists, reposition themselves to take advantage of domestic travellers and their outdoor recreation pursuits,” says Mike.

Read the research by the BBHTC Thriving Regions research team:

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Date posted: 27 August 2020