The “Freedom” Camping Farce

The “Freedom” Camping Farce

In today’s blog, I’d like to discuss Freedom Camping. I say “discuss” because I would love to get your feedback on the issue. I am living a camping life and am aware the fact that emotions run high and are strongly divided on this issue.

For those who are unfamiliar with the term, New Zealand has adopted this term to define issues related to the large number of backpackers in our tourism industry. Specifically, everyone is strangely obsessed with shit but also parking and freeloaders.

First, the facts:
1) A large number of travellers come to New Zealand under the impression they won’t have to pay for travel or accommodation. They believe you can hitchhike everywhere. They seem to also believe you can buy a van or a tent and pretty much pitch up anywhere. And that is perfectly safe and acceptable to do both.
They think this is great because if they skimp on food too, it frees up their dollars for all the wonderful adventure activities they have heard about in the ads and brochures.
2) Local councils believe that the best way to deal with this is to regulate everything with strict, restrictive rules and boundaries.
3) Local hospitality businesses resent the trend because they believe it reduces their earning potential and undermines the efforts they make to provide quality services.
4) Local residents often resent this ‘vagrant’ population and perceive that they are not respecting the area as they would their own homeland.
5) This trend represents a HUGE opportunity for entrepreneurially-minded individuals and business owners to capture tourist dollars.

They hitchhike because of the many anecdotal examples they have heard of this working and working quickly. All the travel guides also assure them that this is a valid option for the traveller on a budget. They may not be aware of just how many people are banking on it working, but they figure they will give it a go. Makes sense really. We brought that on ourselves by having a culture of kindness, I guess.

Camping at Mavora Lakes
Ads depict camping in NZ as it perhaps once was but is now very rarely allowed Source: http://www.doc.govt.nz

The term ‘freedom camping’ suggests the idea that people can camp freely. This idea is propagated and encouraged by our tourism industry with advertisements showing happy young people parked up by camp fires on the beach by some idyllic backdrop. The reality is not so glamourous.

camping2
More likely ‘freedom’ reality these days Source: http://www.odt.co.nz

Camping used to be relatively unregulated so this was possible in many places. However in response to public frustrations, local laws now prohibit camping anywhere other than in specifically designated overnight stay areas. These will either be campgrounds or carparks (sometimes paddocks which essentially resemble carparks). For campgrounds, you will almost always need to pay a fee but they will often allow tents and vans/cars that aren’t self-contained. Nearly all carparks will require you to be self-contained and many require New Zealand Motor Campervan Association (NZMCA) membership (which requires you to be self-contained).

camping3
Source: http://www.NZMCA.org.nz

Despite this change in reality, companies such as commercial camper rental operators have a vested interest in maintaining the image. Thus, the ads continue to grace airport lounges and travel agents throughout the world. Still the idea of free camping in picturesque scenery is touted to the unknowing prospective traveller.

Furthermore, they are offered refunds on their rental fee if the chemical toilet they are given to comply with ‘self-contained’ status is returned unused. Should we be surprised then that campers are choosing to use public toilets over carrying a container of excrement around with them? Wouldn’t you choose a café toilet over many of the foul outhouses provided at our scenic reserves and parks? And why exactly are these self-contained campervans so often confined to areas that also feature a public toilet anyway? Isn’t the point that they can go anywhere and still be able to contain their waste?

It seems to me to be a problem of infrastructure, regulation and marketing as much (if not more than) a problem with the campers themselves. They are merely trying to do what needs to be done.

The facilities are not there for them. So why are we marketing it as an option? Some will undoubtedly continue without the marketing, but it only becomes a problem in great numbers. Some councils provide shower facilities… but then do make them available only between 8am and 4pm (i.e. while they are out doing tourist things, spending tourist dollars). Is it any wonder they are overrunning the public pool showers and washing laundry in their sinks?

One community pool clocked fees for showers (only) doubling each of three years running until they stopped offering the option. Tourist continue to come, happily paying the extra for pool use despite not using it. There is money to be made here!

Business owners could choose to see this market as the opportunity that it is. Those complaining of the lost revenue because they aren’t buying food at their restaurant or staying at their motel need to realise that they probably never would have in the first place! Many of these tourists would have at best chosen a dorm bed at a backpackers or may otherwise not have come to the country at all. These travellers represent a developing growth market and they have money. They may be frugal in how they spend it, but they can be convinced if it is a matter of convenience or necessity.

What could you add to your current situation to make this a positive thing for you? It’s a fool’s errand blaming local government or lobbying them to fix the issue for two reasons: 1) They are bureaucratic by design and they move slowly; 2) during the time the services don’t yet exist, there is a niche market for just about anyone to tap into if they choose to. Consider buying into the share economy of Air BnB or EatWith.com. If you own land, maybe you could market your property’s unique features like an onsite river or dam and offer it as a self-contained park-up. Maybe you limit numbers to guarantee a more outdoors experience than the densely populated carparks. If you own a motel, consider offering free camp sites with facilities charged for. Want to go bigger? Maybe you could set up a collective with other moteliers you know. Set up a club travellers can buy membership in and get reduced rates at for facility use all over the country… for a membership fee of course.

Feeling frustrated that tourist aren’t buying your products? Consider whether they fit into your current target market and if they do, look at what food they would buy and what price they expect to pay. Maybe you add some low-end foods to your otherwise high-end menu or even have a ‘tourist top-up’ kiosk or vending machine for on the road essentials like pasta, sausages, baked beans, camp cooker gas, tampons, toilet paper and toothpaste. Perhaps you have this station fitted with a pay-per-charge ‘fast charge’ USB port or plug socket.

People who have travelled a bit have likely come across a small town where they felt unwelcome. I’ve never felt it in New Zealand until Murchison on my current trip. Signs discouraging the use of anything before proper payment were everywhere and locals in conversation gave away their true feelings about the influx of tourists due to the bypass around poor ol’ earthquake-damaged Kaikoura. It’s no way to encourage tourists to hang around any longer than they have to. Count on them leaving quickly instead of staying to buy supplies, enjoy eateries, visit local art dealers, or tip your wait staff.

We could instead be following the lead of BP’s Wild Bean Cafes where there are charging stations with multiple connection types, encouraging the charging of all kinds of devices. While you are there, enjoy the free wifi and if you have any rubbish they’d love you to use their bins. Oh and by the way, they have recycling bins you can use too. Taps to fill your water bottles? Toilet? No dramas. They’ve got ‘em. I know where I’d be topping up my car’s petrol tank. I’d also probably grab a snack if I was a hitchhiker waiting for my phone to charge.

But how do they make money if they give all this stuff for free? Power costs… We’re charged for water nowadays… Why should we pay for toilet paper and consumables if they don’t buy anything?!!!

You’ll have to ask BP for the details. But I guarantee they wouldn’t be doing it if it wasn’t working out. I’m positive some people take advantage of it regularly, but I notice there are always ads for specials nearby and I’m equally sure that the investment pays off in the bottom line. This exact model obviously won’t work for each business either. BP obviously has the advantage of having a high-profit commodity (petrol), which travellers need in order to travel. Half the work is done for them, but these initiatives tip the choice of WHICH petrol station to use in their favour. The point is to start thinking how to capture the market and make them feel welcomed at the same time instead of used.

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Edmond Bagient Memorial Domain in Wakefield is one of the few free campgrounds without self-contained restrictions… Still mostly just a carpark

Wakefield is one of the few places I have seen on this trip that have separate areas allowing free camping in different modes. Others may have had it, but as an unaware tourist myself, I only know the information that is blatantly easy to find. I’m not going to bother looking hard unless I absolutely have to… and neither will many others. Wakefield had a camp ground with toilets, running water, a carpark for vehicles and space in a small bush reserve which seemed available for pitching tents. There was a little river running alongside and a walking track to town. It was free and was also one of the very few places that allows dogs. Vehicles didn’t need to be self-contained there but there was also another site that allowed NZCA members clearly signposted from the main road. It was still missing the ability to camp in any old spot they want (as the ads suggest), but it’s a step in the right direction.

Although I advocate not counting on your local council to solve the problems, they are slowly getting there. For some reason though, they’re all doing it differently. I don’t see the sense in that. If I am a tourist, foreign to this place, new to the system, trying to work out my travel arrangements, overwhelmed by all the exciting places and experiences etc., the last thing I want to do is work out the different requirements of local governance and I have no idea where the boundaries are between them. As if I pay any attention to the signs saying “Welcome to Tasman” or have any idea what that means to my freedom camping experience. I’m looking for the sign that says “Kayak in the Abel Tasman National Park” or “Going hiking? We can bring your car to meet you at the other end”

I liked the direction that the council in Gisborne was taking, for example. Freedom campers had to register their intention to use designated freedom camp sites at the council office. Camping was ‘free’ but you were required to buy council rubbish bags for the period you intended to use the sites. There were designated drop-off points for the full rubbish bags and effluent disposal ports at the sites. You still had to be self-contained, which seemed silly as there were toilets right at the beach sites (pretty sure it was only those with the $200,000 RVs/motorhomes using their own toilets).

If this system (or similar) was applied to ALL campers and the areas specified only for those who were NOT self-contained, you’ve provided effective management for rubbish which is at the campers expense and simple enough that compliance is likely. Have free campsites equipped with toilets that can handle the appropriate volume of use and require users to provide toilet paper. This reduced the burden of consumables on the council and provides an opportunity for local businesses to sell toilet paper (along with other camping goods at the same time). Alternatively, it provides an opening for a niche business providing vending machines for consumables onsite or even provide it with the rubbish bags at council offices.

If self-contained campers are required to register but allowed to roam, this gives council a chance to:

  • educate them on where they can easily drop off their effluent waste and rubbish bags
  • educate on acceptable camping etiquette
  • specify ‘no go’ zones such as right beside attractions or in city centres (as opposed to specifying designated camp sites)

This makes it as easy as possible to supply campers with the information they need to comply as well as making them accountable for doing so. Campers would naturally disperse more widely and present less of a problem. If this system is universal and communicated to travellers as often as possible, a level of guidance can be given without unnecessary restriction.

It’s easy to downplay the idea that campers may not know kiwi expectations but cultures vary vastly in their acceptable practices. In some countries for example, it is commonplace to litter freely. The practice means that people who can otherwise not work or receive welcome, have a means of generating an income collecting trash. In some places, urination and even defecation in public streets is not uncommon.

Perhaps less shocking, is the fact that maintains a pretty high standard of care for its tracks and conservation in general. This includes offering toilet facilities where many other countries may not. Given the relative lack of facilities in other places, it is understandable that expectations for rubbish and excrement disposal make fall short of our ideas of ‘common’ sense. So why not run a campaign handing out fliers along with landing cards on planes and when booking Department of Conservation huts etc?

Also it is important to recognise the most important fact of them all:

There’s no way anyone is ever going to commit the resources to effectively policing freedom camping rules so it’s in everyone’s best interests to make them simple, universal and guiding rather than restrictive

In the meantime entrepreneurs can cash in like this guy in Marlborough with Kiwicamp. His free camp sites are paired with a smartphone app which people can use to buy charge time, showers, toilet use etc. Good on ya bro! It’d be a great model for councils to eventually follow (or license/contract) to provide 24 hour amenities blocks without the risk of overnight vandalism or vagrancy because the user would be required to log their use on entry. Given the app would be linked to a credit card, it gives the user responsibility for their conduct. Again, this central point provides a sales point for vending machines and/or advertising space for local operators.

I know this all takes the investment of time and money. I know it is easy to say and harder to do. But that’s life. The opportunity is there and the people who invest the time and money early will reap the rewards.

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