Britain has treated the cycle tourist with indifference in the past, writes Carlton Reid, but now we're making up for it
Until earlier this year Scandinavian cyclists used to get lost on Tyneside. They would roll off the ferries at North Shields and wonder why they had to negotiate busy main roads to get to the Northumberland countryside. In their attempts to find back-road routes through the urban sprawl they would navigate the seedier parts of Tyneside. Some headed straight back to the ferry, fed up with Britain's attitude towards cyclists.

In most parts of Europe cycle tourists can follow signposts directing them to the nearest traffic-free cycle trail. In the past year similar signs have been sprouting across the UK. Tourist boards and local authorities have woken up to the earning potential of cycle tourism. Scandinavian tourists arriving on Tyneside now receive leaflets showing how to get from the ferry terminals to the growing network of traffic-free trails.

Home-grown cycle tourists are also benefiting. Almost every week the route-building charity Sustrans opens another stretch of the National Cycle Network. The 6,500-mile network - part funded through a Millennium Commission grant of pounds 42.5m - is the catalyst for a national flowering of pro-bike measures. Within three years it will be possible for tourists and commuters to pedal from town to town, almost anywhere in the UK, without having to mix it with cars and juggernauts.

Because we are one of the last countries in Europe to wake up to the potential of the bike we have learnt from the mistakes of others and are creating a cycle network which is the envy of bike-friendly countries such as the Netherlands and Germany.

Relatively small amounts of cash put into a waymarked traffic-free trail can do wonders for the rural economy. Pubs and post offices in Cumbria and Northumberland have been saved from closure thanks to the 140-mile C2C, a Sustrans route from Whitehaven to Sunderland. This won the British Airways sustainable tourism award in 1996 and visits many previously out-of-the-way villages. As demand for accommodation outstrips supply, local councils run very successful courses on how to set up and run B&Bs.

Cash tills have been ringing in Cornwall, too. According to Cornwall County Council, the villages of Wadebridge and Padstow enjoy an annual injection of pounds 5.8m from cycle tourists using the Camel Trail, a 12-mile stretch of former railway line which is Cornwall's third highest tourist destination with 350,000 visits a year.

The five cycle-hire centres in Wadebridge and Padstow have to pay pounds 50 to the council per bicycle per year. For Nigel Wiggett of the long-established Bridge Bike Hire of Wadebridge, this amounts to pounds 60,000 over five years. He runs a fleet of 200 bikes and, in the summer, employs 26 people.

"Cycling has really taken off in the past year," he said. "Cycle hire has gone crazy down here and it's all down to the massive public appetite for safe family cycling. Wadebridge and Padstow have been totally transformed by the money from cyclists."

Cycle tourism is sustainable tourism. Car-borne tourists take up a lot of room, need parking space and often don't spend as much in the local economy as cyclists. A survey in the Peak District National Park found that cyclists spend an average of pounds 25 per person per day whereas the average local spend of motorists who quickly move on was only pounds 7.30 a day.

According to tourism lecturer Les Lumsdon of Staffordshire University, cycle tourism spend today is tiny compared with the figure likely within 10 years. By 2000, the number of UK holiday cycling trips is predicted to reach 275 million a year. "In Burgenland in Austria approximately 66 per cent of people cycle during their holiday in the region," he said. "There is no reason why this pattern of cycle tourism development should not follow in the UK."

Carlton Reid is editor and publisher of 'On Your Bike', the new family cycle magazine, which features 55 of the best traffic-free trails in the UK.

THE TEN BEST TRAFFIC-FREE TRAILS IN THE UK

Camel Trail, Cornwall. Details: 01208 813050

Bristol to Bath. Details: 0117 903 6829

Monsal Trail, Peak District. Details: 01629 816200

Tissington Trail, Peak District. Details: 01629 816200

Isle of Wight round-the-island cycle route. Details: 01983 862942

Rutland Water. Details: 01780 460705

Glasgow to Inverness. Details: 0117 926 8893

South Downs Way, Sussex. Details: 01273 625242

Cuckoo Trail, Kent. Details: 01323 442667

Keelman's Way, Tyneside (pictured above). Details: 0191 477 1011 ext. 3442

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