More than 50,000 people were counted entering the Ashhurst end of the Manawatu Gorge track during 2013, confirming a surge in visitors to Te Apiti.
It is a milestone that has been greeted with delight by landowner and project leader Tom Shannon and by Destination Manawatu chief executive Lance Bickford.
Mr Shannon said the people-counters provided a wealth of information about the increased use of the area that would be invaluable in seeking support for future development.
"It's really dramatic. We would seem to have doubled the numbers."
Mr Shannon said the whole project had developed out of local landowners and the community, working with the Department of Conservation and Horizons Regional Council.
It was placemaking on a grand scale.
"We were just a bunch of weed sprayers and farmers. It's something that's come from the ground up, and now Destination Manawatu has grabbed it and it's just taken off and is much bigger than any of us now."
Mr Bickford said the 51,643 people count at the Ashhurst end of the Manawatu Gorge track was real.
"And what's interesting about this growth phase is that it's accelerating.
"The projections of achieving 100,000 visitors a year within two years are realistic."
Mr Bickford said Te Apiti was becoming established as the region's major tourist icon.
"It's not just the walks, it's the whole experience, with a boat operator, horse trekking, and mountain biking."
To maintain the momentum, the group would be launching its biggest marketing campaign in years to get visitors to the area.
Further mountain bike tracks were planned, and negotiations to secure a safe track for cyclists from Ashhurst across the Manawatu River continued.
Development of the next section of the shared riverside path from Raukawa Rd to Te Matai Rd would also encourage more cyclists to bike all the way from Palmerston North to Te Apiti.
"This is the real deal for us. It's a major tourism attraction of national significance and we are lucky to have so many opportunities here," Mr Bickford said.
Both men said the development and increased use of the area had partly grown out of the adversity of the slips in the Manawatu Gorge that had closed the road for more than a year from August 2011.
The repairs, and the creation of a road to the top of the slip face, had provided opportunities to advance creation of the Tawa Loop track, the turning bay accessing the car park, and the parking area.
Mr Shannon said those developments had been no happy accident.
"It's because there was so much forward thinking, that we were able to capitalise on what was happening.
"And there is no doubt the slip changed people's psychology, that the gorge really matters."
Meanwhile, a weekend shuttle service carrying passengers from Palmerston North to Ashhurst and on to stops at both ends of the track has made a slow but steady start.
Cross Country Rentals operator James Snelgrove said just over 20 passengers used the service on its first weekend, with numbers increasing to about 30 last weekend.
"It's going really well and we have had a lot of positive feedback.
"These things take time, and it's a matter of getting the message spreading through word of mouth."
Mr Snelgrove said it was hoped Ashhurst residents would use the shuttle to travel to and from Palmerston North at the weekends to improve the efficiency of the service. So far, there had been no takers.
The trial buses, running from The Square to Ballance Bridge and back again on weekends will make it easier for people to walk the Manawatu Gorge track one way.
They will run every two hours at weekends until the end of March.
The bus is part of a combined initiative by Destination Manawatu, Horizons, Palmerston North City Council, landowners and iwi.
- Manawatu Standard
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