The tourism industry is a powerhouse: the World Travel and Tourism Council calculated its pre-pandemic value at 10.4% of global GDP (USD 9.2 trillion). Of course, like many industries, tourism took a hit during the pandemic and might not fully recover until 2024.
But the domestic tourism market is rebounding—Americans want to “revenge” spend on travel. The US Travel Association’s June report found that 62% of American adults “feel comfortable taking a vacation,” reflected in the uptick in air travel over the 4th of July weekend.
Add in Americans’ new love of cycling, and it’s reasonable to think that businesses near a bike trail can be part of a trail-related tourist boom.
Before the pandemic, the Outdoor Industry Association said that Americans spent $97 billion on “wheel sports” (cycling and skateboarding)—more than $13 billion on gear and nearly $83 billion on trip-related expenses.
Source: “The Outdoor Recreation Economy,” Outdoor Industry Association.
Flash-forward to the pandemic: bicycle sales soared as people sought a new hobby or safer mode of transportation.
We asked Gary Smith, owner of TLC for Bikes in Raleigh, NC, if that was his experience, and we got a resounding “yes.” High demand means it now takes at least 3–4 months of lead time to find the components he needs to build a new bike.
This demand means that businesses located on or near a bike trail may be sitting on a tourism gold mine. People are ready for adventure, and bike tourism checks many boxes—it’s outdoors, socially distanced, and possibly a more sustainable method of travel.
Trails draw tourists—and the tourism industry, in turn, supports many small businesses across various sectors. For example, North Carolina Department of Commerce Secretary Machelle Baker Sanders told WRAL that more than 45,000 small businesses depend on NC tourism spending.
Bike touring’s economic potential is staggering even when narrowed down to specific trails.
One model showed that Baltimore could have total retail spending up to $113 million per year and support up to 1,163 workers by building 10 new miles of trail to complete its 35-mile trail network. Those numbers include the impact of both neighborhood and tourist users, but it’s still impressive.
The East Coast Greenway (ECG), a 3000-mile route connecting Maine to Florida, is another example. The ECG Alliance says that “spending from trail users induces an additional $59,726,000 in annual spending in the region”—all related to the 70 miles of trail in the Triangle area of North Carolina. Another study shows that completing the ECG near Philadelphia could generate $840 million in annual tourism benefits for that region.
Even partially finished trails have an economic impact: New York’s 750-mile Empire State Trail generated “$274 million in annual economic impact” 3 years before the route was even finished.
Cyclists are hungry, thirsty, and tired tourists who want to support small-town businesses. They value car-free trails and seek to show their appreciation by spending money in the local communities.
Cyclists can only support businesses they know about, though—and often, it’s not clear what’s available. Is there a brewery near the trail? If so, does “near” mean 2 or 10 miles from the trail? Is the route even rideable (e.g. paved with a low-traffic or wide shoulder)?
Consider working with your local tourism organization or chamber of commerce to create a tourism nerve center that helps cyclists access the information they need. If that isn’t an option, collaborate with other small business owners to develop wayfinding solutions and a cyclist-friendly guide to the area.
Here are some services that bike tourists need:
Some cyclists bring their own bikes, but many need to rent one. Shops that rent bicycles, tour operators that rent out unused bikes, and bike share franchises near trailheads could do well.
Inevitably, something always breaks on a bike tour—like a flat tire, a broken spoke, or a snapped cable. Bike repair services—a bike shop offering trail-side pickup or mobile repair service—are needed.
Most bike tourists don’t ride all day, which means they need off-the-bike entertainment options. This includes local shopping (with shipping options, of course, as no cyclist wants to carry more weight), music, and guided tours.
Cyclists will pay for guided tours, especially to visit sites located some distance from the trail. A beautiful waterfall or historical site within a short driving distance of the trail is a shuttle-and-guide tour opportunity.
Cyclists eat and drink constantly—it’s their fuel.
Restaurants, coffee and sandwich shops, bakeries, breweries, wineries, and even grocery stores can benefit from bike tourism by offering dine-in service, as well as meals and snacks packaged to-go in bike-friendly containers.
Bikers need to sleep before, after, or during a tour on a multi-day trip. Luxury B&Bs, inns, and campgrounds all fit the bill if the lodging is easily accessible from the trail and has bike storage options.
Bike tourists need a lift sometimes. Scheduled shuttle services (e.g., to return to the starting point on a 1-way point-to-point route) or ad hoc pickups (e.g., ride abandonment due to bad weather or mechanical breakdowns) are always welcome.