By: Jim Johnson, BikeTours.com president and founder
In recent decades, tourism has fallen victim to the “more is better” approach. More buses. More cruise ships. More packed streets and sidewalks. More can be better up to a point, but many destinations passed that point long ago.
By creating a world almost devoid of tourism, the pandemic has provided us with a unique opportunity–a blank slate, in effect–to define what tourism will look like in the future. Bicycle travel provides a superb model for more responsible tourism, for better, more authentic experiences, and for more comfortable traveling.
1. Destinations can retain their sense of place.
Overtourism has plagued numerous destinations for years, if not decades. Whether due to crowds, pollution, or other factors, overtourism has destroyed the sense of place that made so many destinations worth visiting. It has also made local residents prisoners in their own homes or caused them to feel like theme park characters. The cost of living has forced many residents out of homes and locations where their families have lived for decades or even centuries.
Bicycle tourism doesn’t overrun cities with caravans of buses or with streams of cruise ships disgorging thousands of passengers but rather in a slow, sustainable manner.
2. Slow travelers spend more money locally.
Those same tourists that arrived by coach or ship often spend little or no money in the destinations they visit. They arrive, walk around, reboard and leave–taking advantage of their all-inclusive packages. Even if they do dine or stay overnight, large groups tend to be booked into chain hotels and large restaurants.
Bicycle travelers spend time in their destinations, savoring shops and patronizing small, family-owned inns and restaurants. And, while bus tourists often focus on non-stop point-to-point travel, cyclists make many stops along the way, sometimes stopping at gelato shops (speaking from very personal experience!), cafes, family-owned wineries, and farmers markets along the way.
Most of the cost of bicycle tours also stays local rather than lining the coffers of large corporations. You’re supporting local tour companies, guides, restaurants, and hotels.
3. Most bicycle tours avoid big cities and support smaller and emerging destinations.
Even in bike-friendly Europe, big cities aren’t often on the itinerary. Instead, tours visit villages, towns and smaller cities well off the beaten paths and away from concentrated populations–ideal for the post-COVID world.
Many stops along the way are emerging destinations that rely on small-group tourism. And some are towns and villages that don’t even want to “emerge” but instead want to attract travelers to support their chosen way of life, like an agriturismo in Umbria, Italy. Or a tiny stone hamlet in the mountains of Bosnia & Herzegovina that will never be a tourist destination but will forever benefit from the occasional travelers overnighting in a retired couple’s small pension.
4. We’re good ambassadors and gracious guests.
We’ve long referred to cycle travelers as “two-wheeled ambassadors,” and that will be increasingly important in the post-COVID world. The pandemic will likely yield two conflicting emotions: a longing and a need for the closeness that can come from shared and interpersonal experiences and a fear of strangers, perhaps especially foreigners, that can come with months of isolation and self-protection. Will post-COVID destinations welcome us or fear us?
At a cyclist’s pace, we’re able to interact with more people and linger longer. The longer the interaction, the better the understanding and the greater the acceptance. As the expression goes, we may not change the world, but we can change their world.
5. We’re good stewards of the environment.
As pollution has lifted from cities and landscapes across much of the world, we’ve gained a better sense of the impact that cars and buses have on the environment. Yes, airplanes do have a large carbon footprint, but once you arrive, your impact on the environment is minimal.
An impromptu beverage with a new friend in Bosnia-Herzegovina
6. Small groups and being outdoors make for more comfortable experiences.
Even after that wonderful day that COVID-19 is behind us, we have become so accustomed to avoiding crowds that tourism industry experts predict that travelers will continue to avoid groups–and large-group travel.
By their very nature, bicycle tours consist of small groups maintaining their distance most of the day. This is especially true on self-guided tours where you ride with people you know and choose when and where to stop.
Likewise, bike tours take place outdoors in open spaces, and frequently in rural settings. Lower concentrations of people and freer flow of air both reduce contagion. And even after we’ve vanquished COVID-19, we’re all now more attuned to how germs spread, whether it’s the flu or a simple cold.