For over 100 years, the Ruapehu region has been a magnet for both international and domestic visitors. It's unique volcanic landscape and the UNESCO Dual World Heritage status of the Tongariro National Park make it a truly special place. Ruapehu cut its tourism teeth on winter sports, in fact, people have been skiing on the mountain for more than 100 years.

But the two commercial ski areas (Whakapapa opened in 1953 and Turoa in 1978) received a body blow about 20 years ago.

On September 25, 1995, Ruapehu erupted in spectacular style with images of ash clouds and debris strewn snow beamed around the world.

If that wasn't bad enough, towards the end of a good ski season another eruption - June 17, 1996 - came right at the start of winter.


These major disruptions to winter business meant locals so reliant on the "white gold" needed to diversify.

Residents of National Park Village began to look towards a 19 km walking track through the Tongariro National Park through the volcanoes of Ngaruhoe and Tongariro.
And that's how Tongariro Crossing was conceived.

The advent of the famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing sparked the small commercial beginnings of summer tourism all around Ruapehu.

But things didn't stay small.

With latest visitor numbers now in, we now know a staggering 100,000 walked the crossing last summer

The next giant leap for tourism came in February 2009, in the shape of the the devastating GFC and the Prime Minister's Jobs Summit which followed it.

The big idea was to build a series of Cycle Trails from on end of NZ to the other.

The plan was that the network would provide a healthy and enjoyable way for Kiwis and international visitors to see the country, but would also generate economic, social and environmental benefits for communities.

Boy has it lived up to those expectations, and all credit to the instigators.

"Nga Haerenga" (The New Zealand Cycle Trail) was a partnership project between the Government and the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand.

The Government invested $50 million into turning this idea into a reality - with a dedicated project team within the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment and partnership organisations from regions across New Zealand.

In addition to the government's investment, commitment of the local communities generated a further $30 million of co-funding towards the construction of the inaugural Great Rides. Ruapehu jumped in boots and all. With the help and support of Ruapehu District Council, plus various community groups, the Region secured two of the then 19 "Great Rides" that were to be built.

"The Mountains to Sea" (M2C) ran from the slopes of Mt Ruapehu all the way to the Tasman Sea, while in the north "The Timber Trail" ran from Pureora to Ongarue.
The North Island's après ski capital of Ohakune was the first to celebrate with the opening of the "Ohakune Old Coach Road" stage of the Mountains to Sea in July 2010.

Local businesses which had previously been almost solely reliant on winter saw the signs of positive change.

TCB Ski & Board became TCB Ski, Board & Bike and decided to remain open for summer in 2010. At the same time local ski shuttle operator "Dempsey Buses" saw an opportunity to partner with TCB's bike hire and provided transport. The new owner of "Station Lodge" Darren Gamble, a keen mountain biker, jumped in with bike hire, transport and a new business called, "Mountain Bike Station".

Mountans to sea

The full Mountains to Sea trail was officially opened in April 2012. To the north, work had commenced building an 84km trail through the Pureora Forest Park.

The Timber Trail, which echoes engineering marvels of the early forestry pioneers (with a series of massive suspension bridges and restoration of the Ongarue spiral), was officially opened in March 2013.

What has been delivered in terms of economic, social and environmental benefit to Ruapehu's communities?

Two to three years on, the answer is heaps - with heaps more to come.

We've just completed our second summer of the M2C and our first with the Timber Trail. It's been a stellar summer for international visitors coming to New Zealand but for Ruapehu it's been the massive growth in domestic visitors that has been such a positive.

In terms of the official "Commercial Accommodation Monitor" which is the official measure of visitors, we are up 17% on our best ever.

In fact, the 2013/14 summer using the same measure has exceeded any previous winter period too.

For example, TCB used to close in October and re-open in March/April. It now employs five full-time staff year round. They are all now permanent households in Ohakune.

Rural population decline is a fact of live in New Zealand and Ruapehu has not been immune. So the permanent households created by full-time work in bike tourism is hugely significant.

In National Park Village, "Kiwi Mountain Bikes" now has a permanent business base in an old ski shop.

Further North to Taumarunui and Auckland, businessman Paul Goulding has established "Epic Cycle Adventures" and is providing bike hire and transport to the Timber Trail. He's just added a second vehicle. Meanwhile, "Timber Trail Transport" has set-up in Ongarue and Pureora.

Bikes are also helping our winter business.

With good access to snow and weather forecasts, coupled with the ability to book online and at the last minute, people often hold-off making a commitment to visit during winter.

But now we focuss on encouraging people to come anyway.

Put skis on the roof and bikes on the back. Often poor weather on the mountain can be significantly better off it.

Bringing your own bike or hiring a mountain bike is an option most days.

So bike business is expected to become big business for Ruapehu. With a network of truly world class cycle trails and now the fully sealed Whanganui River Road, the future for Ruapehu as a year-round bike destination seems assured.

If you're going skiing or snowboarding this winter the message is go anyway. If the maountain weather doesn't play the game, riding one of Ruapehu's National Cycle Trails can be an awesome alternative.

Mike Smith is general manager of the Visit Ruapehu Trust.