ATVs - The Next Big Tourism Opportunity?

Many tourism operators are looking at the rapid rise in popularity of ATVs and wondering whether this will be the next big tourism opportunity or another activity like snowmobiling that fails to live up to expectations. The ATV trend certainly has a lot going for it, but how we all plan where we go from here will determine whether ATVing provides real opportunities for tourist operators.The statistics are impressive. ATV sales have grown by more than twenty percent annually for the past several years.

Several high profile manufacturers have entered the market relatively recently, and we have to assume they see growing opportunities. Interestingly, two of the recent entries are Arctic Cat and Bombardier, companies with years of experience in the snowmobile industry. With flat sales in snowmobiles, their move into ATVs should probably not surprise us, but we have all become accustomed to this being the almost exclusive turf of the Japanese motorcycle manufacturers. The only snowmobile manufacturer active in the area in the past has been Polaris.

When you look carefully at the market demographics, it is no surprise that everybody is so interested in ATVs. The average buyer is relatively old (in his forties) and more affluent than many of our traditional recreation product purchasers. He is also likely to own multiple machines, and ride with his family. This is certainly the kind of market that catches a manufacturer or tourism operator’s interest. So where are the opportunities for Nature Tourism operators and what do we need to do to take maximum advantage of them?

A number of local groups have begun developing and marking trails, and there is a provincial ATV organization. However, we are a long way from having a fully developed trail system complete with the necessary maps. Marking of trails and mapping are going to be critical, since ATVs are likely to create a lot more damage to the environment than snowmobiles if they start to wander off the established trails. Like snowmobiles, they are also a real threat to the value of remoteness that we all try hard to maintain, so keeping machines on an established trail system will be of critical importance.

There are also a number of liability and insurance concerns that still need to be addressed.

Operators in several areas have already begun to mark their own network of trails and offer ATV packages. Some of these packages involve tours from lodge to lodge, and they generally use trails that have been marked and mapped by the tourist operator. Experience to date seems to show that riders tend to prefer a trail system that provides opportunities to stop and take pictures or view the sights, especially rides with well marked branch trails to areas of interest. Overall, the typical ATV rider seems to like to take a rather leisurely tour, with frequent stops to have a look around.

The uncertain winter weather over the past few years in many parts of the province is another reason for increasing interest. Several jurisdictions have developed year round trail systems, so ATVing has the potential to supplement or even replace snowmobile business in the winter.

Also, many of our guests from the US are more likely to own ATVs than snowmobiles, given the even shorter snowmobiling season where they live.

Also, opportunities to ride on public land are non existent or severely restricted in many states, further encouraging riders to look for opportunities elsewhere.

So where do we go from here? Since there is a fair bit of trail planning activity going on at the local and regional level, operators and local associations should get involved with these groups. You can also help by keeping the NOTO office informed about local initiatives. It will be important that we plan trails that minimize environmental damage and loss of remoteness while providing convenient branch trails to businesses who are interested in catering to this market.

Of course, we also need to make sure there is effective planning, funding and organization at the provincial level to create a well developed trail system that meets everybody’s needs. Maybe if we get it right, ATVing really will be the next big opportunity for many businesses in the nature tourism industry. 

This article was taken from page 12 of NOTO's "The Outfitter" publication, Summer 2002 Issue


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