BC VIEWS: The great campground crisis explained

Are commercial operators scalping public campsites to foreign tourists and leaving B.C. folks out in the cold? Not exactly.

Wealthy foreigners snapping up the best properties at premium prices, and then in some cases using them only in prime times.

Occupancy permits trading on classified websites, even rumours of resellers working the passing traffic like rock concert scalpers. The B.C. Liberal government maintains the problem is primarily a lack of supply, and vows to build more.

It’s B.C.’s other real estate crisis, campsite spaces. And mostly it is a summer-time media invention.

An urban radio station poll last week asked if there is something wrong with BC Parks’ online campsite reservation service, and more than 80 per cent of participants agreed there was.

They’re likely misinformed about what is wrong, especially if they’re going by the exaggerated or flat-out false information they’ve heard as this issue was inflated into a national story.

It got going just before the Canada Day long weekend, when popular campsites are always booked solid. Reports claimed European tourists were buying package tours that included BC Parks campground reservations, for which they were paying twice the selling price.

In our 24-hour, social media gossip swamp, this kind of thing gets out of hand quickly. A Salmon Arm company, Canadian Camping Adventures, was named in news reports as working with European travel agencies, buying reserved camp spots for $18 to $38 a night and reselling them for $70.

NDP and Green Party politicians jumped on the bandwagon, shocked that the people’s parks would be exploited like this. One problem: they’re not.

The Salmon Arm couple who built the tour business said the $70 figure comes from adding up all the hotel rooms, camp bookings and activities on the route and dividing by the number of days. The tours are designed around activities and private RV camping facilities, with BC Parks campgrounds often midweek stops along the way.

The business was besieged by threatening phone and email messages, and had to take its Facebook page down after it was inundated with abuse.

The environment ministry pulled together its latest statistics on use of the BC Parks online reservation system. Commercial tour operators account for less than one per cent of bookings, and many of their customers are from within B.C.

In fact, three quarters of all provincial campground reservations are from British Columbians, 14 per cent are Albertans, 2.8 per cent are from elsewhere in Canada and 3.6 per cent are from the U.S. The entire continent of Europe accounts for 6.6 per cent of bookings.

Considering that the B.C. government spends gobs of money on its “Super, Natural B.C.” ad campaign to market our great wilderness to the world, perhaps opposition critics could reacquaint themselves with reality before leaping for cheap media hits.

The reservation system shows plenty of spaces, even at the most popular BC Parks campsites. Weekends are scarcer, and holidays like the upcoming B.C. Day weekend are snapped up as soon as the 90-day window for booking campgrounds comes around.

One trick used by savvy B.C. campers when a long weekend approaches is to book a maximum two-week stay starting on their first day of eligibility, 90 days away. The second week stretches beyond the limit to the high-demand week that is not yet available for booking.

Then they cancel the first week, get a refund for it, and hold onto the coveted long weekend spot.

Environment Minister Mary Polak says creating more campsites in B.C. parks is the ultimate answer. Of course that will attract protests about paving paradise to put up a parking lot.

Tom Fletcher is B.C. legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press. Email: tfletcher@blackpress.ca Twitter: @tomfletcherbc