Lack of proper information on cycling routes, regions and services is one main hindrance to Hungary becoming a genuine cycling tourist destination, experts say.
Though it offers more for cyclists than one might expect, Hungary’s cycling tourism potential remains hidden for most due to the lack of up-to-date information. The country has roughly 3,000 kilometers of cycle routes, a large portion of which is unknown even to locals as there is no information available online.
One example of this is the Upper-Tisza area; a 200-kilometer-long chunk that would make a wonderful bike tour destination, said Miklós Berencsi, head of the Cycling Coordination Department in the Ministry of National Development (NFM) at a conference held about cycling tourism in Hungary in early June. Yet you will not find a map/route of it online, he added. There is not a central (online) platform or app showing all the existing bike routes in Hungary. Nor is there one on related services or accommodation.
This may cause a headache for families trying to plan a biking vacation but is more harmful from an economic viewpoint. “In the absence of data, how could we support with facts that Hungary needs cycling tourism?” asks Balázs Környey of the non-profit Hungarian Cycling Tourism Association (MAKETUSZ). “How can we ask for funds if we cannot calculate the efficiency, the return on investment?”
The economic benefits of cycling are indisputable. In Europe, the total cycling industry adds approximately EUR 200 billion to the economy every year, said Ádám Bodor, head of EuroVelo, a Brussels-based NGO and a network of 15 long distance cycle routes connecting countries in Europe. This is a conservative estimate; benefits can reach up to EUR 500 bln annually. Cycling tourism alone contributes EUR 44 bln euros to the European economy, Bodor said; slightly more than cruising which brings EUR 39.4 billion to the table.
While cruisers are owned, and operated by non-European entities and often employ non-European staff, cycling tourism rely on regional resources, Bodor says. One-day trips are most frequent: The EU calculates there are 2-3 billion such trips per year across the continent. Yet it is the multi-day outings, around 20 million per year, that translate into spending and can serve as a basis for politicians and lobbyists, Bodor adds. They may also use the results of two surveys (one representative, the other more thorough and analytical) that are expected to be published this fall, Környey told the Budapest Business Journal.
These are conducted with the aim of finding out what regions to prioritize when it comes to development and to test how the government’s development plans (currently under preparation) match long-term sustainability goals, Környey said. They will also consider features like cycling tourists’ spending, guest nights, and tourist habits.
Funding itself is not necessarily a problem. Hungary used the highest ratio of available EU-funds for cycling development between 2007 and 2014 per population and per capita, says Máriusz Révész, commissioner for cycling and active relaxation. The government plans to spend around HUF 80-100 billion for cycling infrastructure development in the next five-to-six years, which would add roughly 1,000 km to the existing network, Révész told the BBJ.
There are always ambitious plans landing on the desk of the governmental commissioner, lobbyist who promise to work magic in a certain region out of HUF 2-3 bln investment, but they fail to prove the need, says Berencsi. Most of the time, there is no need for large investments to improve a region’s cycling tourism. “Our goals should be realistic. Why invest millions in building a service center for bikers in regions or larger cities where everything is already available?” he asked. The expert would rather see the existing facilities add specialist cyclist services to their repertoire. Bodor suggests training for hoteliers and restaurateurs to avoid mistakes in the past.
Better signage and maintenance of the routes is also crucial to attract tourists, the speakers at the conference agreed. To improve the latter, NFM has assigned Magyar Közút Nonprofit Zrt. with the operation and maintenance of approximately 1,000 km of routes with a budget of HUF 2 bln for 2017. Signage is ongoing, such lower-cost projects are financed from multiple sources including the Economic Development and Innovation Operative Program (GINOP). Road transport should also better serve cyclists, Bodor noted. Trains have some space for storing and transporting bikes, but long-distance buses have no such service in Hungary yet. Related services, for example, the ability to book a space for you and your bike on a train should also be introduced.
These measures are essential just to get on the bike tourism map of Europe. To become competitive, even more is needed. The most attractive features should be heavily promoted, said Zsóka Abelovszky of the commissioner’s office, who talked at the conference about development. She proposed the creation of thematic routes for cyclists, such as wine or sausages. The existing bike routes often pass by tourist attractions, but do not lead to or connect with them, something that ought to be fixed, too. (This is the result of the previous seven-year funding cycle when many cities applied for and developed non-touristic cycling networks).
People need to understand that there is often more than one option to get to a destination, and that it is not only separated bike lanes that are safe to use, she added. To explore what options they have, a concise map of networks should be created in the first place, experts agreed.