Seeing the country on bike
Thanks to the effort of Tanin Rittavirun, an increasing number of foreigners are exploring the country on bicycle
When it comes to discovering Thailand's tourist attractions from close range there is not a better alternative than the bicycle. It's challenging, exciting and healthy. Nobody knows that better than Tanin Rittavirun of Bike & Travel, a tour operator, who for the last eight years has promoted biking among foreign visitors to give them a refreshing perspective on the country.
“It was not as easy as I thought initially,” said the 37-year-old manager, recalling the early years of his business.
Even as a student, he was a passionate traveller and friends remember he used to organise group tours whenever the opportunity arose. Today, travelling has become his profession. He didn't see biking as a career when he went into the business. Even now he does not look the part: he doesn't have the weather-beaten face and sunken cheeks of a seasoned pedaller.
A former broker, Tanin was disillusioned after a joint partnership in a flower business in Chiang Mai failed miserably. When he started looking for a new business venture, he made it a point to go it alone.
Trekking was popular, but since there were already many operators offering the service, he opted for the bicycle touring business. “It was a good idea to initiate an alternative mode of travel to meet the needs of local buffs eager for a challenge and some new experiences on the bike,” he said.
Once business took off the feedback was positive. “It was a novel idea. The young as well as the old loved it. But the craze lasted only a year,” he recalled.
He learned that people preferred to travel in small groups and only in the company of those who shared similar interest. But once they had bought their own bikes, they refused his services with the result that business shrank.
“I started with ten bikes. Three years later, I was still struggling,” he said.
Although contact with foreign tour operators had been made, their response was not encouraging. The economy was a shambles and there was no financial support to keep the business going. It was like hitting a dead end.
“At the time I still believed that what I was doing would pay off if I was able to stay in business,” he said. His family and others couldn't see a future in the profession.
But towards the middle of the fifth year, just when he was about to sell his business, prospects began to brighten up as a group from Australia checked in to make a booking. It was a breakthrough.
The group, made up of seasoned pedallers, spent one week biking in the north and another in the south. Apart from being its first clients from Down Under, it was also Bike & Travel's first long-haul biking excursion and Tanin learned a lot from them, particularly in the art catering to the needs of foreign customers.
Tanin had so far only handled small local groups where keeping package costs low was the prime consideration. He learned that foreign bikers liked to stay in five-stars hotels. A group that size and operating on that scale called for high upfront payment.
“It gave us some breathing space. We were also able to expand our fleet of bicycles to 20,” he said.
Towards the end of that year, he had a group of 40 people from United Kingdom so he had to find them 40 bicycles. He hasn't looked back since. What began as a trickle has turned into a flood now as more and more foreign and local cyclists have been calling in for his services.
Experience told him that foreign bikers need reliable gear and good service.
“Service should be spontaneous. Straight from the heart. And that has impressed our customers. At the end of the day they are happy. We are able to fulfill their requirements. And sometimes, we have offered more than their requirements,” he noted. “What matters is when we make promises, we have to keep them.”
While he has been able to tap business from overseas, he has not achieved the same degree of success with Thai customers.
`It's surprising that travellers from distant lands know us better than the local people. We haven't done any marketing overseas but some international magazines gave us favourable mention,” he said. The Internet is an effective medium which travellers around the world use to locate and communicate with him. Word of the mouth also works well.
Tanin says Thailand is a perfect country for organising bike tours. His only complaint is that he has not always got the right kind of support from the government and local authorities.
Often, biking routes traverse national parks. There is no clear-cut policy in such places. Bicycles are usually banned from some park areas thereby cutting off some very exceptional routes. The authorities must adopt a tourism policy similar to New Zealand's in order to optimise the role of parks in promoting tourism.
From enquiries made of his customers, he learned that many come to Thailand because they like the people here. Therefore he coined the slogan, “Cycling in the Land of Smiles” to promote his business as well as give Thai tourism a new perspective.
“I always smile when dealing with customers. Sometimes they are exhausted, or even upset when they can't get their message across to hilltribe people. It can be very frustrating. Some bikers told me at the end of the excursion that it was my smile that kept them going,” he noted. He recalled one customer as telling him: “I've never seen a fellow biker come up and fill my water bottle.”
Tanin and his staff look after their customers from start to finish. “We do it not because it is our job. It's more like bringing our friends on tour,” he said.
Foreigners want to see Thai lifestyle. They enjoy biking on back roads. All they want is to pedal through the countryside.
Usually bikers set out early morning and stop for lunch at a typical local restaurant or eatery. The afternoon is for relaxing and then bikers move on to another destination. Long-haul excursions require bikers to pedal from one hotel to another, or between provinces in a single day.
Meanwhile, Bike & Travel is working with the Tourism Authority of Thailand to encourage Thais to take to biking. To that end, he organised a soft race — the Biking Challenge — through Ubon Ratchathani last year. The objective was also to promote ecotourism in the country. The next Challenge will span Krabi, Phangnga and Phuket during the Apec Summit which Thailand will host later this year.
Over the next two years Tanin hopes to add new trails and packages. He often takes to the road looking for new routes and exploring new ways to keep his customers entertained and satisfied. His clients don't really mind switching from dirt to paved roads and vice versa, which is what he is doing now, but they prefer routes where they can do 80-150 kilometres a day.
They visit hilltribe people and remote local communities, eat there and spend their money among them. It's only then that they feel they have really arrived in Thailand.
What a better way to promote tourism at the grassroots level.