Bike tour industry sees a boom in BA City

(This article and its content were first published in the Buenos Aires Herald—print edition— October 13, 2015). 
By Orlando Jenkinson
Herald Staff

As tourist bus faces deep crisis, biking sees ‘amazing growth’ fuelled by new start ups

Tourists in Buenos Aires are turning away from traditional organised excursions as a blossoming bicycle tour industry continues to grow from strength to strength.

The Herald reported earlier this year that the primary bus tour company in the City, Buenos Aires Bus, is facing a crisis of falling customer numbers (down 15 percent in the first five months of 2015), in tandem with the latest INDEC statistics on tourism which show that fewer people are coming to Argentina (foreign visitors dropped 4.3 percent in July) — with those who do spending increasingly less.

Amid the gloom, however, an embryonic bike tourism industry is enjoying an expansion, spawning multiple start-up businesses in recent years, which are tapping into the new corner of the market.

“It’s been an amazing growth from our the original idea: to go and ride bikes with our friends. It really started like that, as a hobby for us, and now we’re taking out hundres of customers every month,” William Whittle, the co-founder of Biking Buenos Aires, told the Herald.

Company data given by the firm showed consistent increases each month from the previous year’s total number of customers, reflecting a rise in fortunes at odds with the falling number of foreign tourists arriving.

Overall, the company attracted 3,092 customers in tours in 2014 (up by over 200 from the previous year) and was already well on course to better that total again this year with over 2,350 people having chosen to book one of many guided tours or rent a bike with Biking Buenos Aires.

The same growth in customers, with an improvement year on year, was also reflected in monthly totals, and can be said for other bike tour companies that have emerged across the City recently. BA Bikes, for example, based in Monserrat, witnessed strikingly similar patterns of growth and rising customer numbers since it was founded five years ago.

“At the start, we had just ten bicycles crammed into a tiny garage like you wouldn’t believe. Now we have 150 bikes, stores here in Monserrat and Palermo and plans for a third in Recoleta,” Director Diego Salamone said.

Offering a suggestion as to what could be behind the cause of such a dramatic growth bike tours, Salamone said that customer’s often cited a more intimate way to experience the sights of Buenos Aires on choosing to explore the City in this way.

“One of the things that customers have responded to biking around the City is that it’s a much stronger, more direct connection. You’re always active and engaging with your surroundings much more than you would be on a bus for example,” he said.

The multiple fledgling businesses tapping into this growth in popularity of bicycle tourism are attempting to cover all areas of the market even as it expands. Alongside putting on multiple separate tours which focus on different zones or aspects like culinary or historical points of interest in the City, most bike tour companies also offer the option to rent out bikes for those that prefer to go their own way.

And among the market, a range of tastes and budgets are catered for. BA Bikes for example, courts most of their customers through the more basic northern or southern-specific tours priced at 350 pesos apiece.

Meanwhile Biking Buenos Aires and Urban Biking both provide all-inclusive tours, with their most popular full-day Citywide tours including drinks, lunch and over ten different sightseeing stops, for between US$90 and US$120 each.

Bicycle-friendly BA

The rise of companies like Biking Buenos Aires or BA Bikes, which itself has two stores in Monserrat and Palermo, has coincided with the City itself becoming more bicycle friendly.

Earlier this year, the Copenhagen Index 2015, an annual survey of urban biking infrastructure development around the globe, ranked Buenos Aires the 14th most friendly city in the world for bicycle users and top in Latin America (it was the highest-placed non-European city), citing the introduction of bike lanes across various neighbourhoods and the creation of the Biking public rental scheme.

“In a shockingly short amount of time, Buenos Aires has succeeded in modernizing itself to include bicycles as transport. In the past three years, over 140 km of bicycle infrastructure has been implemented — much of it protected — along with a bike share programme,” the report said.

Both the infrastructure of the bike lanes and Biking share scheme were introduced by the City government from 2011 onwards, and have proved popular with porteños. Now the bike lanes in particular are helping visitors to the City enjoy cycling too.

“The introduction of the bike lanes across the City has helped us a lot, really helped us grow and structure our tours better,” Salamone told me, adding that he was optimistic that the meteoric growth in the bike tourism industry witnessed in Buenos Aires City showed no signs of abating.

“It’s going to explode this summer. Our business ebbs and flows with the seasons, but we’ve noticed for the first time that many porteños and tourists have been choosing bicycles as a way of getting around the City throughout this winter, for the first time since we began. It’s a great sign for us,” he said.