CYCLISTS are becoming the new welcome guests. Wooed and courted by every county and district council worth its name, they are seen as the ideal form of environmental tourism. Guided on a circular tour, cyclists are converted into non-polluting revenue earners. Their speed - usually an average of under 12mph - means they move gently within an area, unlike motorists who are here today, gone tomorrow.

With many districts worried about the damaging impact of mass tourism, cyclists, like walkers, have never found themselves so popular. The tourism and marketing departments of local councils have also not missed the high 'AB' social status of many cycle tourists who can be free-spending as well as free-wheeling.

Stephen Higham, assistant tourism officer at South Somerset District Council, says cycling has been part of the area's strategy for a number of years. The council has even persuaded Ordnance Survey to include its 100 mile route on its maps while marketing efforts in the Netherlands have produced a substantial number of visitors.

'We look at everything we can do without having to alter or build. We want to use our countryside to the best,' Mr Higham said. 'Cyclists support the infrastructure, they go into village shops, they stop at attractions and they go in pubs.

'We have noticed from our bed and breakfasts on the route they have definitely had increased business from cyclists.'

The South Somerset route links up with others in the West Country with similar networks in Dorset, Avon and Wiltshire.

Where county councils do not have specified routes they are likely to be in some form of planning stage. Humberside has money earmarked for a feasibility study, while Kent has just finished a survey in partnership with its district councils and is expected to open its first dedicated cycle tracks later this year. East Kent District Council already provides a number of local rides, with its leaflet translated into French and Dutch.

James Berresford, assistant director of tourism officer at Nottinghamshire County Council, said the council was hoping to build on its list of rides of between 26 and 49 miles and on interest generated by the Great Nottinghamshire Bike Ride which attracts more than 5,000 entrants.

'Cyclists stay a little longer in the area. People in cars can whizz through. There are good cycling roads in the county,' he said.

The enthusiasm for cycling tourism has been matched by a growth in numbers who have been encouraged by the healthy image of an activity holiday.

Ken Gibson, who runs Norfolk Cycle Holidays, says business has increased 30 per cent a year for the past five years. Many of his customers are taking second holidays and are looking for something to help them get fit.

'We get all sorts but a high percentage of professional people who are interested in doing something different. Already we have had as many bookings as we had customers in all of last year even though we have two new competitors in Norfolk,' he said.