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Rows of campers, RVs and tents lined the shores of a busy Jackson Lake State Park on May 17, 2020. The state park had opened some of its campgrounds earlier in the week after being shut down most of the spring to help curb the spread of coronavirus. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Matt and Mary FaJohn planned to take their two young boys to Iceland in March. 

“And that got canceled,” Matt FaJohn said as he packed up a new, two-bed camper trailer he bought last week with their refunded vacation money. “So we decided we would do more camping around Colorado this summer.”

North Denver’s FaJohns are among thousands of travelers turning to RVs and campers as the tourism industry tentatively steps into a new way to holiday. RV makers, suppliers and campground hosts are reporting a wave of first-timers who changed gears because they’re reluctant to get on planes or visit resorts and hotels. 

“This is our way of social distancing. I’m sure I’m not the only one with this idea,” said FaJohn, whose new camper is built for off-road adventures beyond established campgrounds. “The guy at the dealer on Federal, he was like ‘Honestly, there’s zero haggling to do on these things right now. People are coming out of the woodwork.’”

A survey of 4,000 U.S. and Canadian residents released last week by the world’s largest network of private campgrounds, Kampgrounds of America, Inc., showed the pandemic sparking interest in camping, especially among first-timers and younger generations. 

“Once it is safe to travel, it’s likely the camping market will get a greater share of leisure travelers’ trips in 2020,” reads the May 11 report measuring the effects of COVID-19 on the campground industry. (The study showed camping drawing 16% of leisure travelers for the rest of 2020, up from 11% before the pandemic.)

A boat cruises through water at a busy Jackson Lake State Park on May 17, 2020. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

In March, as RV buyers evaporated and manufacturing plants — mostly in Indiana — closed, the RV industry pivoted toward crisis management. Dealers and manufacturers sent vehicles across the country for use as isolation units, housing for critical health care workers, command centers and mobile testing units. 

California ordered 1,309 to house the sick should hospitals be overwhelmed. Louisiana state police ordered nearly 100 for command posts. A dealer in Texas sent RVs across the state to municipalities. Florida health officials retrofitted RVs as rolling testing labs. 

The 418 businesses that make up the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association pushed federal and state lawmakers to keep RV manufacturers and dealers open as essential businesses to meet this new demand. That ask was easier than persuading lawmakers to keep RV campgrounds open for housing the ill and traveling health care workers. 

“That campground one has been a harder issue and there’s definitely a patchwork of rules across the country, where in some places they are allowed to remain open and other places they are not,” said Monika Geraci with the industry association. 

Now the industry is turning back to consumers and lobbying rulemakers to open campgrounds to social-distancing vacationers. As states craft plans for phased openings, the RV industry is pushing for campgrounds to open in the first or second phases, not later. 

The generally accepted plan for reviving the country’s tourism industry starts with people traveling closer to home. It’s not likely vacationers will be jumping in planes anytime soon, so the RV industry is hoping more people start looking at self-contained campers as a way to vacation while distancing and controlling their own environments. 

“Freedom and control,” Geraci said. “We are definitely hearing from our members that there’s a lot of interest among first-time buyers, especially in states that are starting to open up.”

And Colorado is among those states. Last week, Colorado Parks and Wildlife announced plans to begin opening the state’s parks and campgrounds. The agency is only filling campgrounds to 50% capacity and demand for the Memorial Day weekend was strong. 

“People have been very eager to get their tents, RVs and every other outside domicile out into our parks after the Governor Polis’ announcement of opening,” CPW’s Rebecca Farrell said. 

Rocky Mountain National Park also announced it would start welcoming visitors on May 27, more than two months after the state’s busiest national park closed.

RV production was strong in January and February, with shipments pacing ahead of 2019. Even after the collapse in mid-March, the RV association reported a slight increase in shipments for the first three months of 2020 over last year. After a dormant April, the industry is seeing a revival in May, driven in large part by a surge in demand for RV rentals. As states allow more campgrounds to open, Geraci said her members are reporting “a ton of interest for first-time renters.”

That’s good, but since 40% of the country’s RV rentals go to international travelers, it’s unlikely the growth in first-time renters can compensate for the disappearance of free-spending international visitors, Geraci said. 

“That’s a silver lining in a bad situation,” she said. “We are cautiously optimistic. We went into this really strong and the change in how people are traveling could be good for the industry but it doesn’t change the fact that our manufacturers were closed for all of April, which is typically a very busy time.”

The 3,000-plus members of the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds in recent years have seen a majority of their RV visitors traveling within 150 miles of their homes. 

“We think that is certainly going to be the case in the age of COVID. Maybe even more constricted,” said David Basler, the association’s vice president of marketing. 

The association’s latest survey of private campground owners estimates there are more than 1.2 million private campsites across the country and owners plan to add more than 60,000 this year. For years, a majority of visitors to those campgrounds have been older folks visiting for an entire season. Basler suspects recent upticks in young vacationing visitors will grow during the pandemic. 

MORE: Campers now want more than just a tent. One Colorado campground is leaning into those changing tastes — and shorter attention spans.

Private campground owners are preparing for wary visitors by scripting specific plans for cleaning, disinfecting and maintaining distancing. Communal facilities — like pools, gyms and game rooms — are largely closed.

“In states that are opening, we are hearing from our members on a daily basis that they went from no reservations to booked solid in no time,” Basler said. “As restrictions start to loosen, we are not going to see people cruising cross-country or flying but they are looking at how they can get outside, closer to home and be as safe as possible. The RV is a self-contained way for them to do that.”

Kansas-based Airxcel, the holding company of many brands that supply the RV industry, is seeing business “roaring back” as RV makers and owners order equipment like roofing, paneling, air conditioners and hot water tanks, vice president of marketing Piar Adams said. 

“Way better than we expected,” Adams said. “It makes sense. I think what we are seeing is people who were maybe saving up for a vacation that isn’t happening are realizing that RVing can happen.”

The owners of Gunnison County’s Kebler Corner campground and RV park say their phones and email have been “blowing up” since the state began relaxing restrictions. (Provided by Kebler Corner)

Summer reservations for cabins, RV slips and tent sites at Emily and Paul St. Ruth’s Kebler Corner campground at the base of Kebler Pass were strong in January and February. When Gunnison County worked to control the spread of COVID-19 by shutting down to all visitors in mid-March, the calls stopped. 

“Since the governor’s press conference on May 11, our phones and email have been blowing up,” said Emily St. Ruth. 

That was when Gov. Jared Polis announced his “safer-at-home” plans to slowly reopen the state, with an eye toward opening some hotels and campgrounds by Memorial Day weekend. 

“I feel like everyone was in a holding pen, really across the globe,” she said. “Now as things begin to open up, there is a definite and growing demand. I would not be surprised if we have our best year ever if this keeps up.”

The family owners of Kebler Corner are only filling their campground to 25% capacity as Gunnison County slowly begins to welcome visitors. (Provided by Kebler Corner)

The St. Ruths are only filling Kebler Corner to 25% capacity for Memorial Day weekend, part of Gunnison County’s plan to slowly phase openings of campgrounds, stores and restaurants. The county will allow them to offer all their campsites by May 28, but the St. Ruths are scaling back occupancy for the first month or so. 

“We are business people, but right now our responsibility has shifted to protecting our community, our guests and ourselves,” said St. Ruth, whose family lives at Kebler Corner. “We want people to be out in nature, and we want people to be able to recreate. But we want to be responsible, too.”

Jason Blevins

The Colorado Sun — Email: Twitter: @jasonblevins