Pioneering Otago rail trail joins national cycleway

By Mathew Dearnaley

Central Otago Rail Trail. Photo / Creative Commons
Central Otago Rail Trail. Photo / Creative Commons

The pioneering Central Otago cycleway is to be enrolled into the Government's national network of bike trails.

The renowned Otago Central Rail Trail along a 156km former rail corridor between Middlemarch and Clyde is seen as a benchmark for 18 other clusters of "great rides" being developed for more than $80 million as Nga Haerenga - the New Zealand Cycle Trail.

The Otago trail - opened in 2000 by the Department of Conservation and a trust representing communities along its route - is ridden by about 14,000 people a year, providing more than $12 million in revenue to the local economy.

That doesn't count money spent on air fares and vehicle rentals for travel from outside the district.

But the latest survey of trail users by the Central Otago District Council shows that the vast majority found out about the trail only by word of mouth, in the absence of much formal marketing.

That included many of the international visitors who comprised about 20 per cent of surveyed riders, prompting the Ministry of Economic Development to consider bringing it under the NZ Cycle Trail's global marketing umbrella.

National programme manager John Dunn said that would put the full marketing might of Tourism New Zealand behind the Otago venture as a key ingredient in the country's international visitor offering.

He said the NZ Cycle Trail, on which three rides have been completed and sections of 12 others are open, was already creating international interest and the Otago trail could only keep growing in popularity under the wider brand.

One spectacular South Island ride, the Old Ghost Road from Buller Gorge to the coast north of Westport, has already been ranked by Britain's Essential Travel magazine at third place in a top 10 list of cycle rides of the world.

That is with only 18km of its 80km route open for advanced-grade mountain bikers.

The Otago trail is to be extended by two easy-grade rides under grants totalling $4.54 million from the Cycle Trail fund, running 84km southeast of Alexandra through the otherwise inaccessible Roxburgh Gorge and the old Clutha gold fields.

One of the Otago trail's main instigators, Robin Thomas of the Department of Conservation in Dunedin, believes benefits will flow both ways from its incorporation into the national brand.

Although the trail would gain from the extra marketing clout, he expected linking it to the wider mission would lend more credibility to the new ventures.

He has been involved in a mentoring capacity with Northland's Twin Coast Cycle Trail, appearing at public meetings to assure doubters about benefits likely to come their way and dispelling fears of vandalism which he said had proved unfounded in Otago.

- NZ Herald

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