The Disappearance of Campgrounds
The campground, with its simple cabins and grassy paddock for pitching tents and parking caravans, has long been the main venue for unfussy family holidays, enjoyed by both locals and visitors alike—including the Spensleys and Goodwins from the UK, seen here. However, rising property prices are leading to the sale of many campgrounds for development into superior residential estates. Are inexpensive holidays destined for the endangered list?
The day begins with the sound of zips. The shuffle of sleeping bags, the sliding cry of a gull, the clatter of enamel cups and plastic. They are the sounds of summer, a seasonal soundtrack to big skies, cold surf, towels strung up on guy ropes, and children splashing around, as A.R.D. Fairburn once wrote, “rag-happy through the summer day”.
Below the yellow caravan at Kawarau Falls Lakeside Holiday Park, Lake Wakatipu is spread out like the very best marketing portfolio. For $13 a night campers can read, sunbathe, cook and sleep within metres of what has since proved to be a multimillion-dollar view. Over the water—in late February an impossible Indian-ink blue—Queenstown basks in its own Aspen-like infatuation with the tourist dollar. Back here, time is a little slower. You can smell the toast toasting. You can read your way into late afternoon. You can fall asleep on the grass. Camping. The great New Zealand holiday? Or a piece of nostalgia that’s as good as gone?
By the time you read this, the $13-a-night campers at Kawarau Falls will be gone. Sold in 2005 by Christchurch businessman Philip Carter to Queenstown-based Peninsula Road Ltd, a subsidiary of Melview Developments Ltd, the 7 ha site is now on its way to becoming Kawarau Falls Station, a $300-million development that will include visitor accommodation, apartments and private residences—an alpine lakeside getaway for the wealthy. Back by the yellow caravan, Arnie, who has lived at the camp for the past 11 years, surveys the view.
“There’s a lot of people like me all over New Zealand who like to have this kind of freedom and not worry about a house or a phone bill. And we’re extra income for motor camps. But now we’re being squeezed out by money. Too much money and too much greed. It’s the principle, really—you shouldn’t destroy freedom. But it will be money that does it.”Manager Roy Campbell agrees that the closure of the camping ground is sad. But, he says, it’s inevitable.
“It was always going to happen—it’s happening in all the hot spots. This land has huge potential, especially when you take what the land is worth compared to what you can get as a return off the camping ground. It’s a good sector to be in—95 per cent of the people are nice, down-to-earth people on a budget holiday. But it’s hard work—seven days a week, dealing with a lot of people, and you never feel your work is finished.”
Over the past 15 years, more than 190 camping grounds throughout the country, the majority of them coastal properties, have closed, the biggest single drop in numbers being on the Coromandel Peninsula. While some 65 grounds have opened during the same period, these tend to be smaller and further inland.
Some argue that this is the impact of over-zealous developers, recognising a growing clientele for iconic spots in the country and driving up property prices—particularly coastal property prices—beyond the pockets of the traditional camper or fibrolite-bach owner.
Certainly expat New Zealanders and ageing baby-boomers leaving the city for a slower pace of life have been prepared to pay top dollar for a slice of rural heartland. Perhaps more dramatic has been the increasing number of overseas buyers snapping up a whole range of real estate. According to the Los Angeles Times, New Zealand’s hotels, forests and dairy farms are giving way to “American-style vacation resorts, housing developments and palatial estates”.
New Zealand’s isolation, its physical attractions, its nuclear-free policy and its investment-friendly legislation have paved the way for such high-profile land sales as those to Wall Street billionaire Julian Robertson, owner of the 2428 ha Kauri Cliffs lodge and golf course in Northland, a tract of land at Cape Kidnappers and, most recently, a prime slice of the South Island high country; to American businessman Alan Trent, with his $12–million, 200 ha site between Nelson and Abel Tasman National Park; and to New York tycoon Jhon Griffin, who bought, amid wails of protest, the iconic Young Nicks Head, just south of Gisborne (although the cliffs, pa site and peak of Te Kuri were subsequently gifted into public ownership). According to the Overseas Investment Office, in 1997 about 1100 ha of coastal land was approved for sale to overseas buyers. In 2002, the figure was nearly 2900 ha. (These numbers don’t include purchases of land under 0.2 ha since February 2002, or under 0.4 ha before that.)
Such purchases reduce public access to New Zealand’s coastline and increase land values. “It’s part of the richification of New Zealand,” says Murray Horton, spokesperson for the Campaign Against Foreign Control of Aotearoa. “It’s all about catering to a different market that leaves ordinary New Zealanders out in the cold. It represents the resortification of New Zealand, but it’s only inevitable if it’s allowed to happen.”
For campground owners with an eye on retirement, the high property prices are often just too good to refuse. While adventure tourism and the annual skiing season Winter Festival enable Queenstown to attract visitors year-round, most camping grounds rely on a six-week summer rush for their annual income. Considering the long hours, the high upkeep, the increasing costs of advertising, regulation adherence and Qualmark compliance (Qualmark is the New Zealand tourism industry’s quality-grading system), the preferential treatment given to larger transit tourist camps by some vehicle rental firms, and what some consider to be unfair competition by subsidised camping on council or government reserves, it is hardly surprising that six- or seven-digit purchase offers from city buyers looking for a lifestyle change, or overseas buyers investing in the top end of the hospitality industry, are readily accepted.
There are others who argue that the widespread selloff of often well-established camping grounds is part and parcel of New Zealand’s increasing sophistication, with local holidaymakers showing a preference for sun decks and mocchiatos over sand and mosquitoes.
“Many New Zealanders want to go out for dinner on Ponsonby Road and have their wine and lattes, then once every five years get in touch with nature,” says Peter Blackwell, general manager of AA Tourism. “But we can’t expect it to be the same [as it once was]. We’re growing up. The old New Zealand holiday is changing. In the past, if you took a quick trip around the Coromandel, all you’d see was tents and caravans. Now you see thousands of homes and lattes on the beaches. People expect that. The kiwi psyche has changed.
“We feel sad about it, but you might as well say it’s sad we can’t drive down the Auckland motorway in 30 minutes, or that we don’t all drive Holdens. That’s New Zealand now; it’s just what consumers demand. Holiday parks are closing because 50 people want to buy a bach in that location. There is a certain economy and nostalgia for camping, but look at the bulge in the population—we’re an ageing population, we’re not all prepared to spend the night on a blow-up mattress. And now we can afford more comfort.” Back at Kawarau Falls Lakeside Holiday Park, Roy Campbell has to agree.
“People are less willing to rough it. Ten years ago camps were a lot more basic than they are now. But it’s demand driven—all our cabins are booked before anything else. People want all the gadgets, which is a wee bit of a shame because you go to a camping ground to get away from all of that.”
Are we forgetting how to rough it over the holidays? While the total number of nights spent at campgrounds has stayed about the same over the past five years, occupancy figures for caravan parks and camping grounds have decreased slightly in recent months from where they stood during the previous year. (These statistics include only those campgrounds with an annual turnover of more than $30,000 and registered for GST; DOC and regional council campgrounds are therefore excluded.) On the Coromandel Peninsula, eight camping grounds have closed in recent years, and Jim Archibald, chief executive of Tourism Coromandel, notes that in the wake of these closures the occupancy rates of other camping grounds in the area have not gone up—evidence, he says, that the increasingly affluent baby-boomer generation is opting for cheap hotels, family motels or family homes.
Golf resorts, coastal apartments, new subdivisions and gated communities are now commonplace in many of the North Island’s old seaside haunts. Jim Thomas, publisher of The Bed and Breakfast Book (and virtual founder of the New Zealand B & B tradition), recalls the book’s first edition, in 1987. It contained 300 listings. The latest edition has close to 1400, while an estimated 600 more establishments remain unlisted.
Over the last few years, Qualmark has created a sixth accommodation grading, Exclusive, to cater for the growing number of establishments catering to the top end of the market. There are six resorts in this category.
And if local luxury doesn’t appeal, we’re heading offshore in droves. Cheap flights and package deals are luring an increasing number of holidaymakers into spending a weekend in Sydney or a family fortnight in Rarotonga. Prices are on a par with domestic travel. Leaving from Auckland, for example, you can spend a week in Fiji, including return airfare and five nights’ accommodation, for $765—less than it would cost to take a car on the Interislander and spend five nights in a mid-price motel in Dunedin, which would come without the sun-kissed beaches and the leisurely pace of “Fiji time”.
While domestic travel in the year to March 2005 fell by 9.5 per cent, outbound travel by New Zealanders increased by 23 per cent over the same period. Last December, the number of trips to Fiji alone was up 18 per cent on December 2004. As the number of people taking shorter, more frequent getaways throughout the year continues to grow, the Tourism Research Council predicts short-term overseas departures will increase from the 2004 total of 1.73 million to 2.09 million in 2011, with holidays accounting for well over half of them.
In the face of such competition, some motor camps are trying to go more upmarket, offering motel units, family lodges, spas and cafes on site.
Fergus Brown, chief executive of the Holiday Accommodation Parks Association of New Zealand, is adamant that motor camps need to brush up their act. Representing nearly 300 of the country’s 900 camping grounds, HAPNZ encourages its members to provide more facilities, more comfort and more recreational opportunities.
“The idea of the end of the traditional New Zealand holiday is just not true, but the type of park is changing. There is a changing demand. In some cases people are looking for more sophisticated facilities within holiday parks. Swimming pools, kitchens, cabins, TVs.”
For Gay Kerr, editor of The New Zealand Camping Guide, this is exactly what people don’t want.“There’s as many if not more people wanting less sophistication, not more. Look at Quinney’s Bush [at Motupiko, 50 km south-west of Nelson]—there’s no sophistication there, the playground equipment has all been made by the owners, and it’s chock-a-block full every year. To me, camping is about disappearing into the bush and getting as far away as possible from other people. I try to write for the little guy with the backpack and bike and the pup tent at the bottom of the paddock. They’re the ones that need to be looked after.”
Gay says that each closure is a loss to those who want the simplicity of a no-frills camping holiday—no TVs, no mini-golf, no unnecessary add-ons to what is essentially an opportunity to experience wilderness in all its natural beauty.
“One was Coopers Beach [in Northland], a camp built along the top of a cliff above a gorgeous sandy beach. That broke my heart. Then Tutukaka [north-east of Whangarei] closed. There are fewer now in coastal areas. I think it’s going to send us further afield into the backblocks. We’ve got loads of places, we do have a good standard of camping in New Zealand, and tourists are now going further off the beaten track.”
To places like the Larchview Holiday Park in Naseby, Maniototo, a picturesque alpine park in a historic gold-mining town, flourishing amid increasing interest in curling, ice hockey, gold-dredging and the 150 km Otago Central Rail Trail.
On the last leg of a quick road tour of Otago and Southland, signs such as that in Larchview’s office window are becoming desperately familiar: “Camp for sale. If interested, apply within.” Fortunately, as Larchview is owned by Central Otago District Council, it’s only the operating lease for the camp that’s for sale, meaning the site will remain a popular spot for campers and a bulwark against the increasing privatisation of some the country’s most spectacular scenery.
Like the Coromandel, Otago is rapidly becoming one of the country’s most fashionable places, somewhere not only to enjoy a rich local history or the wide-open spaces of the high country, but also to own a bit. House prices in Central Otago are rising at a rate of 31 per cent a year (compared with 14 per cent nationally), with the median sale price now topping that of Auckland.
“This place is a little paradise in itself,” says Larchview’s leaseholder, John Stent. “The forest setting, the swimming dam. Here at Christmas all the kids are outside. You might get one missing a TV screen but generally they’re all out there, in the river or the dam. If you look at the way Central Otago is going, selling off land and kicking out the average Kiwi camping ground, all for the overseas dollar this is the real Kiwi holiday.”Or is it? Is the real Kiwi holiday swimming dams or swimming pools? Sandy cabins or serviced rooms?
A recent survey commissioned by DOC—perhaps biased in favour of campers—indicates that, outside the resort-style hot spots, New Zealanders still hanker for holidays in the wild, with over 90 per cent of the 1200 respondents describing the availability of camping as either important or extremely important. Just over a third described themselves as current campers, and, while camping seemed to fall away once children grew older and started going on their own holidays, over a half of “lapsed” campers said they would like to camp again.
Are we increasingly dependent on a certain level of luxury? While the DOC survey found drinkable water and vehicle access to be high on the list of must-haves, less than half of respondents considered hot showers, kitchen facilities or even flush toilets essential. Campers seemed to be looking for somewhere offering an experience little changed over recent decades, the only concession to the passage of time being certain increasingly popular “home comforts”, nevertheless considered “basic” compared with facilities at home, such as airbeds, a generator and a small fridge–freezer.
The type of camping ground most frequently visited was the no-frills site with a toilet of some sort and access to water. Least desirable were holiday parks with all mod cons and entertainment add-ons. In fact, the most important draw cards for the camping couple or family were proximity to water, beautiful views of bush, mountains and trees, and wildlife. Birdsong was a key element of an enjoyable camping experience.
“Camping is a cultural thing,” says Conservation Minister Chris Carter. “The consistent theme from everyone is that the most pleasant holiday memories inevitably involve water. Coastal areas, rivers, lakes, streams. It’s the basic experience in these remote places that people overwhelmingly seem to like, and we want to reassure future generations that they’ll be able to have these experiences that we had when we were young.”
Danseys Pass Holiday Camp is a perfect example of a riverside camping ground a million miles from the clatter of telecommunications and the “phsst” of the espresso machine. Carved out of land owned by Otago runholder William Heywood Dansey over 150 years ago, it sits in a small, green bend on the banks of the Maerewhenua River. To the east the unsealed road winds through a soft, tawny hillscape, an other-worldly region of steep rises and startling isolation. To the east, towards Oamaru, the grass is greener, the frequent settlements resting on old farms, older histories.
Planning now for his retirement, owner Neil Thorpe has put the camp on the market, but he’s determined to sell only to buyers wanting to keep it as a camping ground with its relaxed family environment and the shared village green popular with environmental groups, geology students, school classes and the Jim Beam Bottle Collecting Group. It’s all part, he says, of preserving the camping tradition and avoiding the over-commodification of New Zealand’s natural environment.
“Not everyone wants computers and TVs and the rest,” he says. “That’s what people are paying for—to get away from all that. Camping should be a clean, green holiday. We’re seeing more hard-core travellers saying that New Zealand is becoming tacky and expensive, and I think we’re losing quite a percentage of tourists. You see it in Europe everyone wants to go to one place, like Spain or Portugal, then those places start just attracting the fish-and-chip tourists, and everyone else looks for somewhere else to go.”
On the Coromandel, the past decade has seen camps sold, baches go up-market, old properties carved up and holiday houses sold for exorbitant prices—all symptoms of a growing taste not just for sampling but for owning a little patch of paradise.
Some developments, agrees Jim Archibald of Tourism Coromandel, have become local eyesores. Last year a multistorey apartment development in Whitianga saw hundreds of local protesters hit the streets. To control unchecked development the local council is looking at tighter zoning regulations, limiting growth to what an infrastructure already burdened with a huge number of absentee landowners can support, and spreading visitors over the year.
But how much is too much? “How many people do we want? How many is too many before it becomes just a big mall? At the end of the day you can’t stop progress—that’s why we don’t drive Ford Prefects—but we can manage it intelligently. We do want to avoid another Gold Coast or Costa del Sol, but we could double the number of visitors coming to the peninsula now and, spread over a few towns, you wouldn’t notice.”
Those who do notice are in for more surprises. Predictions for the period to 2020 include a boost to the permanent-resident population. Conservative estimates anticipate an increase of 6000 over the 2001 figure. The number of dwellings used only during popular holiday times is forecast to rise by 38 per cent over the same period.
City high spenders are not alone in driving this demand for expensive and exclusive access to some of the country’s most scenic locations. As the international backpacker market is wooed to the world’s latest low-price destinations, such as Cambodia and Chile, extensive marketing is directed at those international tourists with pampering, not Primuses, on their minds.
Of the two million visitors to New Zealand in the year ending March 2005, only 115,000 stayed at caravan or campervan sites, and a mere 50,000 stayed at tent sites.
“We’re really well set up in a very compact space to offer quite diverse opportunities for these travellers,” says Fiona Luhrs, chief executive of the Tourism Industry Association. “New Zealanders tend to stay in motels and holiday homes or camping grounds, and some in hotels. Our target is the interactive traveller—technologically literate, reasonably well off, travelling regularly and looking for authentic natural and cultural experiences. And we do have a lot of things that appeal to these sorts of people.”
Targeted through such vehicles as the BBC and the Discovery Channel, these well-heeled international visitors are lured to New Zealand by terms such as “cosmopolitan” and “sophisticated”, by an emphasis on fine cuisine, first-class fishing, good wine and world-renowned golf courses, and, of course, by the country’s breathtaking scenery.
Luhrs points to trout fishing from Taupo’s luxury Huka Lodge, heli-skiing from Blanket Bay, on the northern edge of Lake Wakatipu, golf on the award-winning course at Kauri Cliffs, in Northland—big views, big investments, big price tags (starting at around $1800 per couple, per night).
Such resorts, says Luhrs, can exist side by side with the old-style camping ground; but compared with the top dollar returns to be made from the enormous buying power of the more affluent visitor, the revenue from the seasonal $13-a-night camper seems insignificant.
As more motor camps fall under the auctioneer’s hammer, and as New Zealand’s natural environment is increasingly cordoned off for the exclusive use of the very wealthy, DOC is being repeatedly called on to step in and preserve an evermore-endangered species of holiday.
“Campgrounds are safer in public ownership,” says Chris Carter. “They belong to all of us and there’s never an issue of access. It’s about preserving coastal experience, not exclusivity.”
There are as many as 235 DOC campsites around the country. Four have closed over the past five years mainly because of flooding or the risk of erosion. Traditionally these camping grounds have no TVs, no mini-golf, no spas. For a minimal price, and with leave-it-as-you-found-it regulations, they provide basic facilities, including water, and some of the most spectacular scenery in the country.
“Camping is a very cheap holiday for many people, whether you have expensive gear or an old A-frame canvas tent,” says Brian Dobbie, senior technical officer in DOC’s Central Regional Office, in Wellington. “It’s a bit of a leveller. I would like to see the opportunity remain in as many places as possible. We’re providing camping sites that enable people to go into very scenic and often natural locations, to enjoy an experience away from the entanglements of civilisation. People go there with their own cookers and accommodation—they need to be self-sufficient.”
One group of highly self-sufficient travellers is determined to see the survival of the traditional low-price motor camp. This year the New Zealand Motor Caravan Association celebrates its 50th anniversary, and its future couldn’t look healthier. With a membership of 17,000 families it boasts an annual growth rate of 11 per cent as ageing empty-nesters sell their houses, pocket their children’s inheritance and invest in a $10,000–$400,000 home-away-fromhome motor vehicle.
“Fifty years ago we were a very family-orientated association,” says NZMCA president Wayne Francis. “Over the past six years we’ve doubled our membership, and it’s mainly baby-boomers [who are joining].
“Some of these people used to live in three-bedroom houses, but with increasing rates and insurance they just couldn’t afford to service those houses. So now they sell up, invest half, put the rest into a motor home and tiki-tour around the country. Hundreds of our members have been on the road for 10 to 15 years.”
Holidays on the road are facilitated by an increasing number of POP stops (Park-Over Properties—that is, places to park overnight), of which there are about 600 throughout the country, offering everything from basic facilities with water to laundries and barbecues; one even has a swimming pool. More and more councils, recognising the potential revenue from a convoy of motor homes descending on their towns, are accommodating these mobile campers by relaxing rules on freedom camping and providing dumping stations for household and toilet waste.
While many motor camps cater for motor homes, the increasing number of camp closures has prompted the NZMCA to invest in its own properties specifically for members, including a 2 ha property in Hawke’s Bay, a lease on a section in Taranaki, and a 0.1 ha (the old quarter-acre) section in Kaitangata, in South Otago. Investments like these protect members’ access to campsites in areas the club deems desirable, such as along the increasingly expensive coastline and other waterside locations becoming increasingly less accessible to the traditional car and caravan or family tent.
To ensure that future generations can enjoy the traditional camping experience, DOC is considering a range of options such as extending the network of camping areas on public land, increasing contracts to private providers to run campgrounds on public land, and entering into partnerships with the Ministry of Education, local government and iwi to make use of rural schools, left vacant over the summer holidays, and rural marae. With some infrastructure and seasonal management provided by DOC, such community resources, says Carter, could double as low-priced summer accommodation for those who want simple holidays in quiet places.
From next year, New Zealanders will have an extra week for just that. Thanks to an increase in the minimum leave allowance from three weeks to four, there will be more time to finish another book on the banks of the Maerewhenua, to swim behind the dam at Naseby, to explore the sand dunes of Ahipara, or to wander down the jetty at Tolaga Bay. For the price of a tent, a sleeping bag and a fee of less than $20 a night, the opportunity to enjoy—not to own—the natural backyard to our cities and subdivisions is available to everyone.
It is clear that such a vacation is no longer to everyone’s taste. In the 1950s, 60s and 70s, New Zealand society was more uniform and less affluent than it is today. Most people were content with simple camping holidays. Nowadays, greater disparities in income fuel the demand for a far broader range of holidays. Ethnic differences also play a part, many new immigrants tending not to be campers. But while an increasing number reach for the comforts and luxuries of the motel and the holiday home, and while tourists demand everything from the ultra luxurious to the backpackers’ hostel, the traditional camping break still appears to hold a vital place in the holiday plans of teens, young couples, families and retirees.
Back at the yellow caravan, Arnie enjoys the end of what he knows will be his last summer at the Kawarau Falls Lakeside Holiday Park. He’ll miss the lake, the view, the campers, the other permanent residents.“This is luxury. I know that. And when I go I’m going to say thanks for letting me live here. It’s been great.”