If you drive around Yorkshire, along the route of the Tour de Yorkshire you'll notice bunting and flags galore as communities get ready for the Tour de Yorkshire next weekend. Many are excitedly planning their celebrations and where they'll watch the cycling races. This isn't the only opportunity they'll have: in September Yorkshire will also welcome the UCI Road World Championships.
Much has been written about Yorkshire's success in attracting cycling tourism. It has undoubtedly put Yorkshire on the map as far as cycling is concerned and generated hours of broadcast coverage and thousands of column inches within print and online media. The cycle races have brought communities together, and given much pleasure to amateur cyclists and spectators.
Some work has been carried out to assess the economic value of cycling tourism. It does bring financial benefits.
However, it's not a panacea. It's not the the only thing Yorkshire should be known for. It doesn't benefit everyone. Not every tourism business is pleased with Welcome to Yorkshire's focus on cycling.
Not enough debate
The cycle races are mainly funded by Yorkshire's councils, by tax payers like you and me. It's right that we should openly debate the value of cycling tourism and the extent to which this should be a continued focus.
With so many calls on the public purse, are cycling races the best way to spend precious resources?
Whatever the benefits of cycling tourism, here are some questions we should all be asking before deciding how great a focus to place on cycling in future.
What are the true costs?
Local authorities pay a fee to Welcome to Yorkshire for ASO (the organising company) and have to dedicate much staff time to the logistics of the races. One council tourism officer told me for at least four months before a cycle race she has to work full time on race logistics, leaving her usual job undone. Then there are the additional costs of road re-surfacing, signage, policing, barriers, portaloos etc.
Overall economic impact figures are published for the TDY but what are the overall costs of putting on the cycle races? How much does it cost Welcome to Yorkshire, each local authority (staging fees, staff time, all internal and external costs), the police etc? What is the total cost? Does anyone know?
If so economically important, why is cycling tourism still funded by taxpayers?
If cycling tourism is so economically important to Yorkshire, with financial benefits for businesses, why is it still necessary for it to be mainly funded from the public purse? What efforts are being made to ensure longer term financial sustainability for cycling tourism, so it is less reliant on income from taxpayers?
The organising company behind the Tour de Yorkshire is Amaury Sports Organisation (ASO), part of the Group Editions Philippe Amaury in France. Marie Odile Amaury (widow of founder Philippe Amaury) owns a majority of this company. Is the Tour de Yorkshire profitable for ASO? If so, is it right that Yorkshire taxpayers are effectively funding a french business?
Local authorities fund the cycle races to bring visitors, profile and economic benefits to Yorkshire, but in so doing they're creating a platform for sponsored teams to race and promote themselves. This year petrochemical company, INEOS will use the TDY to launch their team. Opponents of fracking have already said they plan to protest at INEOS's participation, presumably increasing policing costs.
What is the displacement effect?
The TDY takes place on a bank holiday, when most attractions, accommodation and other tourism-related businesses would be busy anyway. What is the incremental benefit of staging a cycle race at this time? How much money would be generated without a cycle race on a bank holiday?
What is the displacement effect of staging a race during a bank holiday? Some visitor attractions, pubs and retailers find their income is much reduced during TDY weekend because attention is focused elsewhere. Even when the race goes past the front door of an attraction, visitors do not go in during that weekend. They tell me this every year but have never dared speak publicly because the hype over TDY has made them feel they were somehow in the wrong.
How many regular visitors avoid Yorkshire because of the cycle race? Accommodation businesses tell me some of their regulars don't book if the TDY is coming through their area because they have heard about road closures, don’t like cycling or fear crowds. Accommodation providers normally take 2 or 3 night bookings over the bank holidays. Many cycling spectators only want to book 1 night so some providers lose income. We don't know enough about the displacement effect of cycle races.
How can we leverage screen time?
Many will say the benefit of TDY is the TV coverage showing beautiful areas. This is true, but appeals to a relatively minority audience – people interested in cycling. Other types of visitor do not see this coverage, and it is fleeting. Just because we switch on TV to watch our beautiful county as the backdrop to the races, it doesn't mean everyone else does. This isn't 'money can't buy coverage' - we've paid for it through the race costs.
Similar or greater PR effects could be gained from encouraging other TV programmes and films in the area, programmes which have a broader audience. What other efforts should we be putting into attracting filming within Yorkshire, for longer term, broader impact?
What do tourism businesses really want?
What do tourism businesses want to happen? How keen are they to have more cycling tourism? Welcome to Yorkshire has a limited staff and they cannot do everything. They have become known for their expertise in cycling tourism but critics such as North Yorkshire Councillor Dr. John Blackie accuse the organisation of being a "one trick pony". Recent feedback from a consultation survey I conducted showed the strength of feeling from businesses about Welcome to Yorkshire's focus on cycling tourism - full details can be seen here.
Time to talk about other tourism sectors?
Cycling tourism brings benefits and pleasure for many. Cycling tourism has led to the creation of some new businesses such as Stage 1 in Hawes and the Yorkshire Cycle Hub in the North York Moors, and development of some existing businesses such as Dales Bike Centre. The Swale Trail capitalises on interest in tourism and attracts more family cyclists, and encourages visits to local pubs and cafes.
But it is also time to talk about other aspects of tourism we need to promote in Yorkshire, and to debate how public funding is used in future. Yorkshire councils have been generous in their funding of cycle races.
We may agree that cycling tourism is a "good thing", but it should not be Yorkshire's only claim to fame.
What other tourism sectors could we support to bring year-round visitors and spread the benefits of tourism across Yorkshire? Without a Yorkshire-wide tourism strategy (which Welcome to Yorkshire has not had for some time), we can't maximise the promotion of all our assets.
Some of the problems at Welcome to Yorkshire were masked by adulation of Gary Verity and awe at what cycling tourism has achieved.
Now is the time for proper, open debate and for all tourism businesses to feel part of Yorkshire's tourism success, not just those that welcome two wheeled-visitors.
I've worked in tourism marketing for over 30 years, developing strategies & practical solutions for accommodation, attractions, activity providers, food & drink businesses. These are some of the tourism industry issues I'm concerned about. I'm writing here about Yorkshire but most of the issues are relevant elsewhere.