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Motorcycle Tourism Booming in Australia

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    • Town/City: Tauranga
    • Bike: Suzuki DR650 ADV, BMW R100GS
    • Rank: Round the World Adventure Globetrotter

    Is motorcycle tourism in NZ on the up or down?

    The Mantra Esplanade in Darwin caters for business travellers, government executives and well-heeled tourists. But when the guests emerge from their rooms in leathers and biker boots it’s a sign that another motorcycle tour is about to leave town, bound for Perth, Uluru or Airlie Beach.

    The days of the outcast biker are virtually over. In fact, the hog-riding traveller is now targeted by governments for the boost they give to tourism. The Victorian government’s Motorcycle Tourism Strategy 2013-2016 says “motorcycle tourism has the potential to make an important contribution to the Victorian economy, particularly in regional areas. Motorcycling is the fastest growing road user sector.”

    Touring on a motorbike may sound like a nightmare of saddle-sores, but motorbike tourists account for about 1 per cent of Australian tourism, making it conservatively a $350 million business (without the costs of bikes, petrol and accessories). And it’s being fuelled by our increasing interest in bikes: since 2010 motorcycle registrations have grown 22.3 per cent, twice the growth rate for cars (10.4 per cent) according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

    Motorcyclists pump money into an economy because they are independent travellers, likely to make spur-of-the-moment decisions and pay the full rates.

    And motorbikes add a participation element to travel. “While the towns and destinations that riders visit and pass through are important,” says the Victorian report, “the actual experience of getting there is an overarching motivator to travel.”

    Australia’s domestic intra-state bikers are the most numerous, taking weekend rides into rural areas and staying in country hotels. Others do longer inter-state trips through classic touring country such as coastal and alpine roads. Then there’s the motorbike tourists who tour for several weeks or months, either in a tour group or by hiring bikes and self-guiding.

    Only way to travel
    Dave Pearce, owner of bike-hire company Aussie Biker, says motorbike tourists wouldn’t travel any other way. He mainly services in-bound tourists from his Noosa operation and either leads them on a 15-day guided tour around Queensland’s coast and outback, or supports self-guided tours with bike hire, maps and recommendations.

    “Most are self-guided,” says Pearce. “They want tips and recommendations – anything to make it a better trip. But they’re independent. They’re classic FITs [fully independent travellers].”

    Some customers he calls ‘cruisers’: they hire large road bikes such as Harley-Davidsons. The others – ‘adventure tourists’ – hire dual-sport bikes such as the BMW GS-series and they like back roads.

    He says the typical motorbike tourist is aged 40-60, from Europe, North America or Asia, financially successful and active travellers rather than passive tourists. His customers include business owners, solicitors, police officers, corporate managers, surgeons and retirees, but what they all have in common is a search for adventure.

    “We hired a bike to a husband and wife from the UK and they’ve just returned from a 33-day round trip to Perth. They put 12,000 kilometres on that bike, and that’s not unusual.”

    Motorbike tourists are not afraid to spend. Pearce says the cost of food, petrol and accommodation comes to about $200 a day, once on the road. When you add the $100 – $140 per day bike hire costs, it isn’t a cheap way to travel. But it is the unforgettable way.

    “Most of our business is repeat business,” says Pearce, whose fleet includes Harley-Davidsons, BMWs, KTMs and Triumphs. “Australia is a good place to go touring – there’s incredible variety in the landscape and a lot of great roads.”

    Melbourne-based Compass Expeditions covers both outbound Aussies looking for adventure, and inbound and domestic tourists wanting to see Australia. Compass runs three and four-month motorbike expeditions in South America, Russia and Africa, where the riders are supported and guided.

    Touring the Northern Territory on a rental BMW. Compass Expeditions

    Trip of a lifetime
    “These are trip-of-a-lifetime holidays,” says Jerry Cook, co-founder of Compass. “So we take care of everything. On our expeditions we deal with visas, border crossings and freighting of your bike, if you bring your own.”

    Cook says motorbike riders could plan their own trip through South America but on a Compass tour all the paperwork and accommodation is covered and you don’t have to worry about missing an attraction. His guides know which gas stations serve bad petrol and which restaurants to avoid.

    It’s not cheap. The Compass 2017 Cairo-Cape Town Expedition costs $23,990 if you bring your own bike (Compass covers the shipping) and over $30,000 if you hire the recommended BMW 800 GS. Add another $17,990 for your pillion passenger.

    Cook says the prices look steep to outsiders but for the biker crowd it represents value and uniqueness; the adventure of motorbike travel with a secure hotel to sleep in.

    Compass also operates a 19-day tour out of Darwin, to Melbourne, taking in Kakadu, Katherine, Uluru, Oodnadatta, Flinders Ranges and the Great Ocean Road.

    “You see a lot of Australia in that 19 days,” says Cook. “People rave about it. We get a lot of repeat business on that one.”

    Compass operates a support van on its tours which means you don’t stand in the sun all day if you have a flat tyre or mechanical problems.

    Cooks says there are many comfort levels in motorbike tours and Compass is at the high end of the spectrum. “Our customers want the adventure of riding all day, but then they want a mini-bar, air conditioning and a Jacuzzi.”

    Safe steed mandatory
    They also want the certainty of a reliable, safe bike. Compass only provides BMW GS bikes and if there’s a problem, it’s fixed or replaced.

    The nexus of Australian wilderness and motorcycle tourism is gathering momentum. At Southern Cross tours in Darwin, their new tour in 2016 will be a guided trip into Arnhem Land Aboriginal Reserve, the first time motorbikes have been officially allowed into the home of the Yolngu people.

    “We run tours,” says owner of Southern Cross, Jude Murdoch. “But people also hire our bikes.”

    She says a popular self-guided ride for tourists is Darwin-Broome (via Katherine) and trips into the Northern Territory’s famous National Parks. The company’s fleet is mainly BMW 700 and 800 GS bikes because Murdoch says they are the most stable and reliable bikes, suited to all body sizes and riding styles.

    “Most of our customers are in their forties and fifties,” says Murdoch, but there is a diversity of motorcyclists now appearing. “We recently rented a bike to a young German doctor, and she rode all the way to Perth on her own. Motorcyclists love the adventure of the road.”

    She says for all its freedom and fun, there is a safety dimension to motorbike tourism. Many northern hemisphere tourists aren’t ready for the heat-fatigue of riding in Australia and they’re inexperienced on the dust roads.

    “We brief our customers, talk about the heat, wildlife and floods,” says Murdoch, whose bikes have GPS trackers in them in case someone gets lost. “A lot of tourists turn up with a tent and we’re honest about how uncomfortable that will be. We also talk about road trains.”

    There’s also a pressure valve for the wives. “We take a support vehicle on our tours, and the non-riders can ride in the van when it suits.”

    Dave Pearce also has advice for his motorcycle tourists: start early and knock-off about two o’clock (if the heat is getting to you), or 3 o’clock if you’re unaffected.

    “I reckon riding 400 kilometres a day is quite enough, especially with a pillion passenger.”

    And what about those tender parts of the body not accustomed to sitting on a bike for two weeks?

    “That’s part of the terrain,” says Pearce, “just like bugs in your teeth and getting wet when it rains. That’s what you talk about over a drink at the end of the day. It’s part of the fun.”

    This article was originally published on the Australian Financial Review: http://www.afr.com/lifestyle/travel/biker-touring-boom-accelerates-past-350m-in-australia-20160322-gnob0l

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