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February 2011

Rotorua's trails are a pattern for others to follow

That Rotorua is a mecca for mountain biking is beyond doubt: the parking area at Waipa is often overflowing on a sunny weekend. The fabulous trail network in Whakarewarewa Forest is the envy of cities all over Australasia, and SPARC’s activity participation report (available on their website) shows that cycling is one of New Zealand’s biggest recreational pursuits. Mountain biking is already delivering a massive economic return to Rotorua, shown by three surveys conducted since 2006, each outstripping the one before it by a wide margin.

With Rotorua plugged in to direct trans-Tasman flights, groups of Australians are starting to come for mountain biking weekends, much as ski holidays have attracted them to the South Island’s resorts.

Cities all over Australasia do not just envy Rotorua, they are creating steps to create their own versions of the Rotorua formula. Some are aiming at the visiting mountain biker because they understand the value in getting these people into town.

For example, Queenstown have been hard at work over the last year developing a better mountain biking offering for their city. This summer they are opening a gondola accessed downhill trail system designed to provide downhill runs for everybody, from the beginner through to the experienced downhiller. A lot like the variety of trails we have from the top of Moerangi. They have developed two  cross country trail systems about half an hour by bike trails along the lake from town. Much like the trails close to town we can access via the Town Link Track. They have two well – developed dirt jump areas with council funding, on council land.

That is the pattern for many centres hoping to get bike riders in for a visit.

The good news for Rotorua is that moves are already underway which will keep our town up with the leaders in the race to attract cyclists: the Te Ara o Ahi (Pathway of Fire) Bike Trail is in the final planning stages, and will offer tourists a fascinating ride through a variety of thermal scenery. The skills area planned for Longmile Road will cater for dirt – jump enthusiasts. The outlook is good for continued development of trails in the forest, and council-supported developments around the Waipa carpark area are exciting (toilets would be nice!). We have the potential to create one of the world’s great multi day mountain bike rides around the fabulous forests and lakes near Rotorua, but that is a project which would require a lot of good will from a lot of parties.

The existing facilities, planned developments that are underway, and things that could be developed in the future are an exciting platform to make the city’s chances of retaining its mountain biking crown good as ever. And the support all these things get from the city will be as important as anything else in making them happen.



Whaka Forest is more than a plantation

Whakarewarewa Forest is growing more than trees: it is growing a huge reputation. Along with magnificent trees in a rich variety of species, it harbours a network of mountain biking trails that are called the best in the world. Not by locals, but by visitors who have travelled the world looking for them.

Every weekend hundreds of visitors join thousands of locals enjoying a recreational attraction that has been delivering a growing and measurable economic return to the city for over 20 years.

With the direct flights from Sydney come Australians who have been lured here by the marketing this great trail system gets: by word of mouth, by magazine articles, by videos on YouTube, and by advertising that the city and its businesses do with mountain biking front and centre.

As a local, I often get to guide visitors around the trails. Almost always it happens like this: a group of people are gathered round a signboard or hunched over a map, and I ask them if they need a hand finding their way. Often they want to go where I am going, and nothing is better than showing new people the wonders of Split Enz or Be Rude Not To.

Almost universally, they remark on how lucky we are to be living in Rotorua, with such a fantastic City Council running such a great Park, that delivers so many benefits. This week I guided an employee of a New South Wales town who had come here to research how it was done.

Imagine their disbelief when it is explained that we are not in a park. We are on private land, in a crop of trees owned by financial institutions. That all the trails were built either by volunteers or the local club, with their own funding sources. That the carpark is on private land which is zoned for industrial development.

The owners of the land and the trees understand the value of the forest to the city, but recreational visitors are their guests, in a forest managed with objectives other than recreation and tourism.

For example, work is underway on felling of a small grove of huge Redwoods, the very trees that lend their name to the forest for most visitors (try getting an Australian to say Whakarewarewa). Nobody with any sense of what makes the place special could stand among those trees and say chopping them down is a good idea, they constitute a tiny percentage of the trees in the forest and it is hard to imagine what the gain will be, but there must be balance sheet somewhere that shows one. Hopefully the foresters will not cut all of these amazing trees down, so that the iconic trails that run through them retain some of their character.

The city is not involved, it can’t be. It is not our land, they are not our trees.

It just feels that way to most of us.



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