If you build it, they will come… Or will they?

AmaRider’s Meurant Botha gets weekly requests from landowners and riders who want to develop new trails on their properties or in their backyards. Sadly most of these ideas or dreams do not materialise, primarily because of budget or permission restraints. So in the next series of articles, Meurant will shed more light on the process of developing a new trail.

Where do trails come from?

Several factors drive the development of a new trail but primarily, trails develop due to either user demand or because of commercial initiatives. These initiatives can include tourism and especially in the case of South Africa, the development of event courses is a primary trails driver.

User demand typically drives trail development around major centres where high population volumes obviously include loads of riders. One generally finds that trails here consist of a combination of new trails and the formalisation of existing tracks and trails through lobbying.

That being said, some of our best country trails are developed by local enthusiasts who simply want a cool place to ride. Little consideration is given to budget or somehow recouping the investment and the builder derives enjoyment from the trail in a similar way to any other person who invests heavily in a hobby.

The benefit of ‘hobby trail building’ is that the builder directs and controls the vision of the trail, based on personal riding preference and are not guided by an exhaustive ‘please-everybody’ spec list or public participation process. The outcome is generally unique and this goes a long way to create the variety in trail challenges that mountain bikers enjoy.

Imagine how boring it would get if all trails were built to the same spec by the same builder!

Of course any project in and around the urban edge is almost guaranteed to be fraught with red tape and bureaucracy. Hence it’s important that urban trails are driven by collective interests, such as mountain bike clubs. The Tygerberg MTB Club is a prime example of a strong collective lobby group. But clubs are not only effective in big cities as shown by the Karkloof MTB club in the KZN Midlands.

Mountain bikers are quick to point out that they do not like or need to belong to clubs, but unfortunately you need structure to engage organised groups like ratepayer associations or municipalities. Your municipality serves the interests of key constituencies and groups, not those of individuals.

Once hobby builders access funding the miles of trail tend to multiply. Stellenbosch is a good example, there are five or six builders active in the community, which works hard to provide them with funding, and you can clearly see it in the variety and amount of trails around the town.

If you are not building a ‘hobby trail’ as described above, but want to use a trail as a tourism conduit, sustainability becomes an issue as you are looking at a fair financial investment. Many tourism-driven initiatives need a lot of cold water tipped on dreams of high visitation; revenue derived from permit sales and projected spin-offs as a result. The business plan must preferably position the trail as an added benefit or attraction underpinning an existing attraction.

When we talk tourism, I like to compare a trail to a swimming pool. In a hot location the venue with the swimming pool will be much more sought after than the one without. Equally, the MTB-minded visitor would rather book a venue that provides trail opportunities. Importantly though, is the reality that just as the pool will require filtration and chlorination, the trail needs maintenance.

If the trail is in a rural community you’ll do well to attract 200 riders a month. The income derived from this level of visitation will never cover the initial investment so you will have to consider alternative revenue sources. For example, you have to monetise the visitor via a restaurant, accommodation or conferencing.

Also bear in mind that in order to attract today’s trail rider, you need a substantial offering, as the scale of developments around nowadays make it difficult for even events to draw riders away from their home trails.

Smaller towns and regions that are keen to develop trails need to understand that almost all of the international examples of “small town – big mountain biking” tourism success stories have one common theme: The locals all ride! Riders like to visit communities where mountain biking is high on the agenda and the passion can be seen throughout the community, not only on the trails.

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