European Tourism and Hospitality: What Can We Learn

August 20, 2014

This is a series of posts by Ginny Sullivan, director of travel initiatives, which highlight the lessons learned from a month-long bicycle trip in Europe. Ginny, her husband, Tom, and friend, Neal, cycled on several different bicycle tourism routes and their journey took them through nine countries. Nothing could have prepared them for the reality of touring through some of the most beautiful places on earth while witnessing the institutional support and high visitation on the routes. These trip reports focus on 1) big lessons learned; 2) infrastructure and wayfinding; 3) Multi-modal connections; 4) Tourism promotion and the role of the hospitality Industry. 

Embarking on this trip, I was really curious to see how European tourism officials were involved in both promoting and supporting bicycle tourism in their regions and communities as well as how the hospitality industry was woven into that fabric of promotion and accommodation. Luckily, I had a in-road with Ed Lancaster (pictured on right) at the European Cyclists Federation who then connected me to numerous EuroVelo coordinators (they are the designated support system for each country's EuroVelo Routes) and tourism officials. In some cases, such as in Italy, the country's bicycle advocacy group was the primary contact and in some cases, the tourism bureau was, meaning they not only promoted the route but also were in charge of making sure the route's infrastructure and wayfinding were set and that hoteliers and restaurants were catering to cyclists' needs. 

Let me start by talking about what I learned in Italy.

Meet Volker Schmidt and Antonio Dalla Venezia of Federazioni Italiana Amici della Bicicletta (FIAB). Antonio is also in charge of all the bicycle infrastructure in Mestre, Italy. An effusive fellow, we overcame our communication gap (he spoke no English, I spoke no Italian and my friend/interpreter struggled with the Venetian dialect) over a long, traditional Italian dinner in his home. Antonio was tasked with helping FIAB develop tourism routes and promote them. He was specifically working on some in the region, developing brochures, working to get signs along the route and develop a website. It was sort of foggy to me how all this worked.

Luckily, Volker was our tour guide and took us bicycling on the Lido Island chain, a very popular cycling destination near Venice, so I could see first-hand how bicycle tourism in Italy worked. 

This is where I saw that there are plenty of cycle tourists and that cycling receives decent support, such as ferry service, separated and on-street facilities, and decent way-finding, but that coordination on a European scale wasn’t always accepted as fact or desire. In fact, the Lido officials evidently resist the idea of becoming part of the EuroVelo Network because they don't wish to see cyclists “pass through” their towns, they want them to arrive and stay. I chuckled, as at one time, a city had posed a similar conundrum to me, “Why should we be part of the U.S. Bicycle Route System when we have a great city network? What does the USBRS do for us?” As I mentioned in a previous post, Italy and the U.S. have a lot in common (other than the fact that Italians don't always like to follow traffic laws). 

At the end of our island hopping, we stayed at a wonderful hostel, called Domus Clugiae. The building was at one time an army barrack and is now owned by the city but run by a non-profit that puts people considered "unemployable" to work. It's a wonderful project and is very successful.

The hostel is part of FIAB's Albergabici program, which promotes hotels to cyclists and, as FIAB members have a chance to inspect, certifies them with a sticker or plaque. 

I really enjoyed meeting the manager, Alessandro Doria, who informed me that the fleet of rental bikes (you can see them behind us) is both affordable and a big attraction as guests use the bikes to find their way to the nearby beaches. The hostel is relying on word-of-mouth advertising and programs such as FIAB's to attract guests. It seems to be working. 

One of the thinigs I noticed about cycle touring with Volker, who embarks on at least one long bicycle tour each year, is that you must stop for espresso and baked goods or ice cream, and you must stop often.

Here we are kicked back at another hostel, this one, called L'Hotel La Corte, is a refurbished monks agricultural center with an attached building converted into a city hall. Novel and right on the trail, it's the perfect stop for a sweet treat or overnight accommodation. 

Volker was always finding little cafes to indulge our appetite for good Italian coffee, spritz, and sweets. I think that's why cycle tourism is so big in Europe (estimated at $57 Billion/year). With the service density, there is no need to plan ahead (unlike bike tours out west). Just eat and go, eat and go. We soon caught on. 

One of the things I loved about our trip was the connection between bicycle tourism and local markets, local food production, and the slow food movement (more about that later).

Many of our routes went right through apple orchards, strawberry farms, wheat, barley, and corn fields, and, of course grape vines and wineries. 

We found self-serve apple juice stands. Oh, the taste of fresh apple juice on a hot summer day! Nothing like it.

We also saw hundreds of trail-side "Biker" cafes.

These were are real treat but we stayed mindful that even though we loved beer and wine, these were best saved for the end of the day. We often these cafes as places to check our maps, refill our water bottles and use the facilities. They were plentiful and welcoming. 

Later, when we reached the Romantic Rhine region of Germany, we did try some local wine. We were in prime wine country and due for a bit of indulgence. 

While I was in northern Italy, I met with Barbara from the Bolzano/Bozen tourism office. They are part of a larger tourism region, known as South Tyrol (Suedtirol). This regional effort includes promotion of cycling (mountain biking, touring, recreational cycling & events, and local transportation). They are also responsible for destination and bike network signing and promoting hotels that are bicycle friendly.

This came up as a reoccurring theme, by the way. Not only does the SwissMobility Foundation (see the SwissMobility branded sticker) and FIAB promote and certify bicycle hotels, but tourism agencies do so as well — definitely something to consider for the Adventure Cycling Route Network and the U.S. Bicycle Route System.  

In Switzerland, I was anxious to speak to the tourism and transportation officials in Chur — a major mountain bike and tourism destination on the Rhine, and the starting point for our trip on EuroVelo 15. Michael Christ was very informative of their interest in sustainable tourism, including connections to rail and bus. To my surprise, the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) is very involved in Chur, hosting their World Mountain Bike Congress there for the second time this October.  

One thing the tourism bureaus I met with had in common was their concern for the environment as well as promotion of their city or region. They all saw themselves as stewards of the landscapes, and were aware that extensive promotion of their regions could have environmental downsides. The upside — they all see the benefits of bicycle tourism's minimal impacts on the environment and recognize that bicycle tourists are highly desirable (hungry and affluent). 

One of my favorite meetings was with Claudia Schwarz from the Romantic Rhine Tourism. Claudia took us up to the highest point in the little village of Bacharach and presented us with a bottle of locally made wine. We then climbed to the local castle (also a hostel) and chatted about her work with EuroVelo, bicycle tourism, and promotion of the Upper Middle Rhine Valley, a Unesco World Heritage Site.

When the Rhine River Route was being developed, there was money from the European Union devoted to support it. With the route established, supporters felt that more work needed to be done. So Claudia became part of a team of people that provide continued staff and financial support to the route — signs, promotions, facilities — you name it. Lukas Stadtherr (pictured above) from the SwissMobility Foundation, Claudia, and a number of other people, have formed the Demarage project to further efforts along the Rhine River Route. In addition, Claudia is very mindful that, since her region is a Unesco Site, tourism efforts are geared towards retaining the natural beauty of the region.

Now comes the slow food.

Through Claudia, we were able to connect with Annette Sinn of Breisach Tourism. Between them, they set us up with contacts at a couple of hotels that swept us away with their enthusiasm, their food, and their hospitality. The first was Engelbert Hau (pictured above and below) of the Kapuzinergarten Hotel in Breisach. Our hotelier showed us an array of rooms to choose from, checked us in, and then served us dinner. Dinner was a lovely affair that included his special Kapuzinergarten wines (made by him during the off season with locally grown grapes) and Beef Bourguignon. This was slow food at its best. Dinner was nothing short of four hours and included numerous courses (and wines). We weren't alone. All the diners in the restaurant enjoyed their lengthy, delicious meals with us while we all took in the goregous sunset from the glass-encased room. It was nothing short of spectacular. 

The next day, Tom and I took the opportunity to talk to Engelbert about his hotel, how he caters specifically to bicycle tourists and how he sustains his energy for the hospitality industry (it's in his blood). 

A few nights later, Claudia put us in a special little hotel called Rhein Hotel Bacharach. The proprietor, Andrea, learned the trade from his father. He then learned to love wind surfing and mountain biking, his release before coming in for an evening of cooking us a sumptuous meal. We also met the vintners who created our wine — seated at the table next to us. I love knowing my cook, farmer, and wine-maker. 

One of my major goals while cycling through Europe was to visit with tourism officials, hospitality providers, and business people that catered to cycle tourists. I wanted to not only understand how they promoted bicycling, but also understand why. Was this something just expected because of the bicycle culture? Or was it something they chose to do because they saw the potential profits? Was it demanded by the visitors? How did local service, such as signing, fit in? What lessons would transfer to the U.S.? So my takeaways are numerous. Businesses in Europe love cyclists. They find ways to bring them off the trail and into their establishments (with luring treats and coffee). Tourism officials are concerned with preserving the natural environment and see cycling as a great fit. The hospitality industry, especially those that are locally owned, survive and thrive because of bicycle tourism. In the words of Andrea, "they bring their appetites and pocketbooks." I think there are many transferable lessons, one of which we are already tackling by being a major sponsor of the National Bicycle Tourism Conference being held in San Diego November 5-8. Join us if you can! 

Photos by Neal Fisher and Ginny Sullivan.

BUILDING THE U.S. BICYCLE ROUTE SYSTEM is posted by Ginny Sullivan and Saara Snow of the Travel Initiatives Department and focuses on news related to the emerging  U.S. Bicycle Route System (USBRS). The USBRS project is a collaborative effort, spearheaded by a task force under the auspices of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). Members of the task force include officials and staff from state DOTs, the Federal Highway Administration, and nonprofits like the East Coast Greenway Alliance and Mississippi River Trail, Inc



Dan Grinstead August 30, 2014, 11:43 AM

Nice report. I live in Aachen, Germany. As an American with some long U.S. tours under my belt, touring in Europe is a totally different experience. This report captures much of it. Beautiful landscapes; great infrastructure; superb en-route services and accommodation (either hostels, hotels or commercial campgrounds). I love cycle touring here and especially the widening EuroVelo network.

Lutz Kraetzschmar August 20, 2014, 7:39 PM

Nicely done report. I'll start my tour through a couple of New England States coming week. Till now pretty good experiences within the much more intense car- and truck traffic - compared with Europe and compared with the fact that one doesn't find too many really long bike pathes (like the rhine-bike path or other transeuropean pathes with reduced traffic. Will see how it works out here.

Thanks for the report!

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