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Cross-border cycling route could generate millions of dollars for Okanagan economy

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A recent meeting of B.C. and Washington State cycling enthusiasts could be the first step towards a cross-border promotion that could bring major economic benefits to all of the Okanagan.

“In Europe, cycle tourism is a 44 billion Euros a year industry,” Don Gemmell, president of the Trail of the Okanagans Society told “Those huge numbers Kelowna has seen on the Okanagan Rail Trail can be translated into real economic returns.”

Gemmell attended the meeting that was organized by Osoyoos councillor Myers Bennett but was the brainchild of Arnie Marchand, an Oroville First Nation leader. He attended the Indigenous Tourism Conference in Kelowna last year and realized people on both sides of the border were promoting things like rail trails.

“One of the things I noticed at the conference in Kelowna, is that the people in the Okanogan down there and the people in the Okanagan here are doing the same work,” he said in a news release. “They don’t even know each other. So I wanted to set up a face to face meeting to bring people together so we can start communicating.”

The meeting was held in December 2019 but a media release about it was recently posted to the Trail of the Okanagans website.

Gemmell has toured a number of the trails and old highways in northern Washington State. While some include steep hills, there are lots of old rail trails linking to ghost towns and loops that can be done back to border crossings in Midway, Greenwood or Grand Forks.

“You have to imagine the potential of leveraging Osoyoos, which is a major hospitality hub, to create a cycling mecca in the borderlands,” Gemmell said. “The odds of that are quite significant and the economic returns of that are quite significant.”

There are efforts underway throughout the Okanagan and Shuswap on the Canadian side to have one trail linking Sicamous to Osoyoos. That also has links to the Kootenays through, for example, the Kettle Valley Railway. But there are also major gaps, particularly in the Central and South Okanagan where cyclists are forced to ride on a very busy Highway 97.

“If you get this cycling economy building in Osoyoos, it drives the need to deal with the gaps,” Gemmell said.

He also noted that a 2012 study showed cycle touring was a $400 million a year industry in Oregon. He likened the Okanagan to the Willamette River Valley in Oregon where cycle touring generated $78 million a year and 279,000 cylists in 2012.

That valley is about 250 kilometres long, similar to the distance from Osoyoos to Sicamous, although it’s much more populous with many of Oregon’s largest cities.

Gemmell said there were 500,000 users of the Okanagan Rail Trail last year.

Another key attraction to cycling in Northern Washington is that they have traffic rules to protect cyclists and lots of quiet back roads that connect to rail trails, Ciel Sander, trail coordinator for the Trails to the Boundary Society, wrote in an email.

"One of the best parts about riding a bicycle in Washington state now is people driving vehicles... will be legally obligated to give bicyclists at least three-feet of clearance when passing in the same lane," she wrote.

Touring cyclist only travel 60 to 70 kilometres before looking to stop for food, drink or an overnight stay, so there’s plenty of opportunity for businesses along the route to reap the economic benefits, Gemmell said.

Another cross border meeting is expected in February.

Mike Overend, from the Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association – who also attended the December meeting – said the likely next step is to determine which organization is best suited to putting a map together to show the various cycling routes not only through the Okanagan into Washington but also into the Kootenays.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Rob Munro or call 250-808-0143 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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