Wheels of fortune

2013-10-25 00:00

IT’S a windfall that’s almost too good to be true, but can it be used to its full potential? Pietermaritzburg is being described as Africa’s Bike City after successfully hosting several international cycling events, but does it have the imagination, initiative and capacity to take advantage of all the opportunities this presents, including growing tourism in the area?

So far, tourism, local government and business representatives have been somewhat flat-footed in their responses, but the good news is that Midlands entrepreneurs and bright sparks have spotted opportunities and are quietly making plans to develop them (see adjoining story).

The story started in 2009 with the city signing a contract with Cycling South Africa (CSA). Economist Clive Coetzee, the man in Treasury who has been involved since soon after this happened, said that so far, the cost to government for the past three years has been about R30 million — which paid for hosting fees and infrastructure — or about 20% to 30% of the total cost. The return on this investment has been over R350 million in direct spend by non-KZN people — on accommodation, food, etc. — and an estimated indirect spend of close to a billion rand.

In addition, in August, Pietermaritzburg received a 200-hour blast of international TV coverage worth nearly R2 billion. Coetzee said a contract has been signed with CSA for the relationship to continue until 2018, which will include Maritzburg hosting at least two more international UCI events, at least one continental event and one national event.

However, he said buy-in by council and tourism bodies has been disappointing.

“The whole thing starts falling flat when you ask about how this is being exploited. Nobody takes advantage. That’s the sad part. There’s nothing being done. There’s nobody driving this. It’s just taken for granted.”

He said the government has done its part and now “it’s up to tourist people to leverage the market. Businesspeople must market Pietermaritzburg as a destination. These events can brand the whole of KZN.”

Alec Lenferna, event director for the MTB World Champs, expressed a similar frustration, saying that while there had been talks with local government and PMB Tourism about what they should be doing, nothing has happened.

“The main thing that they need to grasp is the enormity of the event.”

Dumisani Mhlongo, director of PMB Tourism, said accusations that they haven’t done enough are “unfair. There’s no question the event is good for the economy. We’re trying to get involved in the organising of cycling events so we can understand better the potential for the city to develop around it.”

Municipal spokesperson Brian Zuma said rather than focusing on individual events, the city’s strategy is to promote “the whole package of international events taking place in our city”.

As an example of potentially lucrative spin-offs from these international events, Lenferna said there are opportunities in attracting northern-hemisphere teams to use the city as a base for training. “A team from Slovenia are coming here for two months before next year’s MTB World Cup in April to train, because the weather’s so bad over there at that time of year.” He said that with 70 teams coming to the World Cup who could be approached about training here, this could be potentially lucrative for the city, but someone needs to take the opportunity and do something with it.

Another potential spin-off must be developing the branding of Pietermaritzburg as a cycling centre to attract the lucrative, growing leisure cycling market. The city and surrounding areas with their extensive plantations are widely acknowledged in mountain-biking circles to have some of the best trails in the country, while the Midlands, with its gently undulating, scenic countryside and good weather, should have potential for profiting from recreational cycling.

In Scotland, a Sustrans report released earlier this year found that leisure cycling contributed as much as £239 million (R3 777 604 603) per year to the local economy. “Cycle tourists represent a growing and valuable tourist market for local economies,” said the report.

“They generate local trade, support local businesses, services and attractions, and promote development of cycle hire and holiday operations. In rural areas especially, they could play a major role and cycle routes could become ‘key economic lifelines’ for isolated villages and towns.”

Here in the Midlands, several local entrepreneurs and bike enthusiasts are forging ahead with cycling-related ventures. John Wykerd, owner of Velo Life shops in Victoria Road, Hillcrest, Somerset West and Hilton, is setting up a cycling hub in Hilton, and will be employing a person to develop bike tourism for his business.

Matthew Drew, a keen mountain biker, has been working as a consultant with Sappi for the past three years to develop its extensive plantations in the Karkloof into a place that can be enjoyed by serious and recreational mountain bikers. His wife Sarah Drew owns a company that offers a range of tours, including for cyclists, and says her business is growing.

And James Martin, acting CEO of Midlands Development Agency (Meda), says it is in the early stages of trying to develop a continuous cycle route from Cascades, through Hilton College and Umgeni Valley, to the Karkloof trails.

These developments are in step with a global trend which, according to one study, saw a 65% increase in adventure tourism — of which cycling and mountain biking are a part — between 2009 and 2012.

What’s missing is a champion, someone with vision, resources and the ability to creat a campaign with pizzazz to help get these initiatives moving in the same direction. Find the right person and with a well-thought out branding campaign and all local players on board, the humble bicycle could become a symbol of hope and prosperity for the region. Here’s hoping.

• shelaghm@witness.co.za

• There are over 1 380 000 active cyclists in South Africa.

• 62% of the market is under 38 years of age.

• It’s a largely white market, with the black sector showing the largest growth statistics.

• MTB is experiencing 15,8% year-on-year growth and road cycling 7,7%.

• 86% of cyclists fall within the LSM seven to 10 bracket.

— Impi Concept Events and BMI Statistics.

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