Coping By Camping

The Bad Economy Is Driving People To Take Cheaper Vacations, Often At Campgrounds

Recession Tales

April 27, 2009|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,candy.thomson@baltsun.com

Nita Settina oversees vast tracts of public land, from Deep Creek Lake out west to Assateague on the Atlantic Ocean. But this year, with families pinching pennies, the Maryland State Parks superintendent thinks that no matter how many destinations she has, "If the weather cooperates ... we're going to be swamped."

Despite having among the highest user fees in the country, state parks attracted 11.3 million visitors last year, an increase of 1 million over the previous year. The vast majority of visitors spent the day at beaches, on hiking trails or at family gatherings at picnic pavilions. But more than a million people spent one or more nights at campgrounds, either in a tent or a cabin.

"It's extremely affordable when compared to the Magic Kingdom," Settina said.

Private campgrounds also expect the bad economy will translate into more visitors arriving in RVs or seeking cabins and tent sites.

"We're not hurting at all," said Pat Tetrault, spokeswoman for the Northeast Campground Association, an umbrella group representing 1,200 campgrounds in 11 states, including Maryland. "Reservations are just as strong as ever. We started taking reservations in January and campgrounds for the holidays are full. We're not fearing the economy."

To stand out in the vacation market, private campgrounds are adding restaurants, fitness centers and free Wi-Fi.

Cherry Hill Park, a 400-site campground at the crossroads of Interstate 95 and the Capital Beltway, has a conference center and ballroom. Owner Michael Gurevich has cable TV hookups for each site, offers a dog-walking service, rents golf carts for getting around, shows movies nightly and employs a staff that advises the best way to see the sights of Washington.

"I think it helps people enjoy their stay," Gurevich said. "We need people to come from all over the country, not just from the region. Our services set us apart, and tour buses and city buses stop right in the campground and make it easier for visitors."

Last year, Kampgrounds of America, which has 500 campgrounds across the country, saw first-time camping rise 21 percent, more than half of it consisting of families. Tent camping was up 16 percent.

But the other side of the coin was a decrease in nights out by KOA campers, from 32.5 nights in 2003 to 25.3 nights last year. And, with gas prices high, KOA saw a drop in interstate travel.

To attract more traffic, campgrounds are lobbying to be listed along with hotels and B&Bs on sites such as Orbitz and Travelocity.

The state, too, is making changes to become even more attractive to overnight guests, adopting a more inclusive pet policy, revamping the interpretive programs and developing a better online reservation system for next season.

Settina said that on a dozen or so days last year, several of her most popular waterfront parks - Assateague, Cunningham Falls in Frederick County, Sandy Point outside Annapolis and Point Lookout, where the Potomac River meets the Chesapeake Bay - reached capacity.

"Anywhere there's water is packed," Settina said. "I wish I could build some more lakes."

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