It was 1993 when a quiet spot in Whakarewarewa Forest was marked for Rotorua's first official mountain bike trail.

Twenty-five years and 160kms of trails later, Rotorua has become synonymous with mountain biking, turning the sport into a multimillion-dollar industry for the city.

Rotorua's trails and general enthusiasm for the sport has attracted worldwide attention in recent years, most notably securing hosting rights for Crankworx, which kicks off its fourth Rotorua leg today.

The economic value of mountain biking in Rotorua was last estimated at $13.5 million per annum.

Advertisement

But that was two years ago, and one industry professional says today's figure could be more than three times that.

Tak Mutu, the business development manager of Crankworx, said with an estimated 500,000 annual visitors to Rotorua trails, the economic impact should exceed that in Queenstown, which was estimated to have 330,000 annual visitors, worth $25 million.

He said people biking the trails made up half of the total number of recreational users.

"Mountain biking isn't just worth a lot to this economy. It's going to be a massive part of the economy growing."

Mutu said market research done by APR about the economic benefits of Crankworx 2016 put the benefits of just five days of the event at more than $8 million.

Tak Mutu, the business development manager of Crankworx, says the event brings millions to Rotorua. Photo / Ben Fraser
Tak Mutu, the business development manager of Crankworx, says the event brings millions to Rotorua. Photo / Ben Fraser

He said the sport brought tourists and other visitors to the city and provided opportunities for businesses such as bike shops and accommodation providers.

"I think about when I first started mountain biking. Rotorua has a huge Maori population, but there weren't many in the forest. Now I go and every day there are people from all sorts of backgrounds, skill levels and demographics."

Rotorua's deputy mayor, Dave Donaldson, has a long history with mountain biking, from governance on the Rotorua Mountain Bike Club to competing as a master athlete.

Advertisement

He said events like Xterra and Crankworx had lifted Rotorua's profile internationally and domestically, creating more opportunities for businesses.

"Businesses have grown outside of mountain biking. There are skills classes, bike hires, trail builders, e-bike rentals and tours. For a city this size we've got a lot of bike stores," Donaldson said.

Dave Donaldson has worn many hats in his time in mountain biking. Photo / Stephen Parker
Dave Donaldson has worn many hats in his time in mountain biking. Photo / Stephen Parker

"The other thing is the number of accommodation providers who tailor their offerings to suit visiting mountain bikers. The proximity of the forest is a key selling point."

Donaldson said the best thing about the sport was its accessibility. This, he said, had increased with the rise in e-bikes.

"When I started mountain biking in my 40s I was one of the oldest in the forest. Now I'm 67 and nowhere near the oldest," he said. "It's good fun, it really is. It's like being a kid again."

Last year the council won the judges' choice award at the Local Government New Zealand Excellence Awards, for the district's mountain bike strategy.

The project was about establishing Rotorua as a globally recognised mountain bike destination through its trails, infrastructure and events.

Destination Rotorua chief executive Michelle Templer said the sport was a valuable part of Rotorua's "fabric" and part of what makes the city a great place to live and visit.

"Mountain biking was made famous in Rotorua by the unbeatable beauty and dirt on offer in the Whakarewarewa Forest and has now risen to be one of the major drawcards for attracting people to the destination," Templar said.

"However the reason mountain biking has been such a success is the continued passion, enthusiasm and commitment the Rotorua community has to keeping the trails in such a fantastic condition and that keeps people coming back for more."

The growth of mountain biking:
Whakarewarewa Forest Mountain Biking Visitors per annum:
- 55,000 in 2005
- 85,000 in 2007
- 101,800 in 2009
- More than 250,000 by 2016
Mountain Bike Rotorua's growth
- From 30 bikes, one prefab building and one employee in 2011.
- To 150 bikes, three sites and 20 staff in 2017.
- A 167 per cent increase in bike rental transactions from 2011 to 2015.
Other growth:
- 12 accommodation providers now offer bike storage and/or washing facilities.
- Rotorua Airport has a bike assembly area to allow travellers to dismantle or assemble bikes
Rotorua Lakes Council report: Establishing Rotorua as a Globally Recognised Mountain Bike Destination