Comment: Free Camping

One of the things that make Australia great is our ability to travel the wide open spaces and find our own little piece of Australia where we can camp and perhaps stay a few days to enjoy what the area has to provide. But it all comes at a cost...
There has been plenty of discussion about ‘free camping’ on this site and in many others. Often inter-twined in these discussions is the cost of staying in caravan parks or other short-term accommodation. And a recent post about Tasmania reviewing ‘free’ camping prompted me to put a couple of thoughts together...
The arrival of much larger, self-contained, caravans and RV’s has seen the debate about the provision of ‘free’ or ‘subsidised’ camping facilities around Australia become more vigorous. Many towns you pass through these days have been endorsed by the Campervan and Motorhome Associations’ for the provision of these facilities, seemingly in return for the patronage of the town’s businesses.
But at what cost? The term, there is no such thing as a free lunch, comes to mind.
Now to qualify the discussion, I am not talking about access to free camping in the wide open spaces, but how it relates to camping in, or near towns, that already provide short-term accommodation via caravan parks or the like.
The argument currently being used is that if you provide free, or subsidised facilities we will patronise the business in your town, and if you don’t we will drive through – a position seemingly being taken by many, and often promoted by the various Associations, but in the long run who will this really affect the most? I suspect it will be the travelling public.
Free or reduced fees in this context equates to a local government subsidy to those demanding it, at the expense of not only the local rate-payers, but also to those who already provide these services.
And this is a key element of the whole debate, how it affects those currently providing the service, and what does it mean for the future?
It is easy to take a very short-term view of the issue, and there have been many discussions about the cost of staying in a caravan park, and whilst I don’t intend to discuss that in any great depth here, I think there is an element of misunderstanding of the true cost of running these businesses.
The longer-term implication is that over time private sector investment in short-term accommodation for the travelling public will decline, we are already seeing this through the closure of caravan parks, and also is one of the reasons many are not investing in upgrades to current facilities. Let’s face it, if the local government is going to compete with you, and subsidise the real cost of providing the service via ‘free camping’ why would you invest more money in your caravan park? And this is one of the reasons some caravan park owners are now taking action against local governments for doing this. Tasmania is a good example. And to its credit, the Tasmanian authority has commissioned a report to look at the whole issue, in part, due to the fact there are laws around making sure there is pricing neutrality.
This is a personal view point of mine; I have no investments in caravan parks, I want to travel Australia as cheaply as I can, but, importantly, I want to see a continuation of investment in tourism infrastructure in Australia, as it provides jobs to the local community, and it ensures we have facilities available when we are travelling.
And I’ll leave you with this thought. Government subsidies generally lead to a fall-off in private sector investment, is very inefficient from a cost point of view, and means that we become more reliant on the government to provide the facilities and infrastructure we need. One only needs to look at the government sector track record on infrastructure investment in Australia to see that the travelling public will be the loser in the long-run if we continue to ‘stifle’ private sector investment.
Perhaps the caravan park model needs to change, but be careful of demanding government subsidies to achieve this...
And as a footnote, Camps Australia has been a boon for the travelling public in Australia, I have one in each of my vehicles, but already we are seeing signs of stress on the free camping areas listed in the books. Often over-crowded, generally unregulated, and in many cases filthy. The old adage, give someone something for free and they won’t value it resonates loudly. Is this the infrastructure we want for the future?
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Reply By: Nargun51 - Monday, May 13, 2013 at 16:32

Monday, May 13, 2013 at 16:32
Great post Landy.

I notice that you have been very careful with your words; I would have been far blunter, but would have faced the accusation of trolling.
AnswerID: 510981

Reply By: Mazdave - Monday, May 13, 2013 at 16:36

Monday, May 13, 2013 at 16:36
Some very pertinant and valid points the Landy, and something I touched on in thread 100621. In my thread, I raised the point of Caravan Parks being overtaken by Cabins and Playground equipment to the detriment of the "traditional" caravanner, who only wants a nice clean shaded site with access to clean amenities. As a consequence, the Parks have now become "unaffordable" for some as they are forced to pay increased site fees to compensate the owners for the additional infrastructure costs of catering to a new and developing market. Hense the Traditional caravanner now seeking Free or Low cost camps and putting pressure on these very bare essential facilities.
I for one, want to stay and travel as cheap as reasonably possible, but not to the extent of having to share overcrowded, dirty and unhigienic free camp sites, just to save a few dollars a day. Hopefully there is some middle ground to be established and maybe, just maybe the "No frills" Parks can and will become viable in the future.

AnswerID: 510982

Reply By: Bazooka - Monday, May 13, 2013 at 16:53

Monday, May 13, 2013 at 16:53
The discussion re camping has been had on here many times before so I won't comment again other than to say that your govt V private conclusions are extremely simplistic if I'm reading them right. Rewording your statement would be equally if not more valid: One" only needs to look at the private sector track record on infrastructure investment in Australia to see that the travelling public will be the loser in the long-run if we relied on private investment". Both govt and private are required in many cases.

Private enterprise requres profit/ROI and for many large projects they won't invest without surety - cheap land, rates, taxes, govt guarantees and subsidies etc. This all comes out of taxpayers pockets, but is far less transparent than the annual financial reports of local councils which may for example show (in simple terms only) the actual costs versus income of a facility. Cost then becomes the big/only focus and the real value to community generally is rarely if ever factored in (funny how the much overrated multiplier effect is only ever mentioned for "events" which private enterprise wants govt to bankroll - but that's another story). Similar arguments are being had in many city council areas - what if any demands should be made of visitors (beachgoers in Sydney for example) and what special rights should be given to ratepaying residents?

Where the "infrastructure" is unlikely over time to ever to run at a real profit (without excessively high costs) then it makes little economic sense other than for govts to invest on behalf of society and for taxpayers to share the cost. Ports are a great example. The govt/private investment and infrastrucure development mix is important and getting the mix right is very complex.
AnswerID: 510986

Follow Up By: The Landy - Tuesday, May 14, 2013 at 15:03

Tuesday, May 14, 2013 at 15:03
You are quite correct to say that private enterprise will only invest if there is a return on equity commensurate with alternative uses for that capital.

In the case of caravan parks as we have traditionally known them, the divide between what needs to be charged for the provision of services versus what people are willing to pay, especially those with self-contained caravans and motor-homes, is becoming greater.

And I get it that if you have a self contained van than you don’t need all the frills that caravan parks may be offering. But the reality is there is no money in providing a caravan site in a van park any more. The money is in cabins and attractions to attract that type of visitor.

One of the biggest drivers of this has been the increasing land values in Australia. Many are able to buy the big van and tow vehicle because of the rising equity in home values over the past 25-years – so I guess we can’t get it both ways.

So if private enterprise won’t provide the facilities, should we expect local governments to do so? I guess that is something a community needs to decide whether there is an equitable pay-off for the community given tax payers will be funding it.

In the case of larger communities this may be an option, but I’m not sure there is sufficient evidence that smaller communities benefit from this approach, because generally people want “free facilities” to subsidise the cost of travelling, and usually this means spending money in larger centres for supplies etc, because of the price tension it offers versus doing it in smaller communities where there is only one general store.

I hear arguments to the contrary, but many small communities worked this out a long time ago, the pay-off usually doesn’t match the subsidy.

The issue that needs to be addressed is that we have more and more “empty nesters” and others travelling and a caravan and motor-home industry pushing out thousands of self contained units, but it isn’t being matched by the infrastructure at a price that people are willing to pay.

The problem will only grow...and should we expect to travel for free?

On Sydney beaches, I can’t think of any Sydney beach that doesn’t charge for parking. Local ratepayers are usually provided with free parking in their local government area...
FollowupID: 789159

Reply By: Member - Bruce C (NSW) - Monday, May 13, 2013 at 17:13

Monday, May 13, 2013 at 17:13
Hi Landy,

I have noticed that there is a tendency to open a new thread every time someone wants to make a comment on free camping. Should not all such new threads be inserted into the original comment about 5 or 6 new threads ago.

Perhaps the Mods would like to look at his and perhaps make it a sticky at the top of the current page.

Having said that there are several points I would like to make on the points you raised.

All councils that are not on the coastal holiday strip are looking at ways to get more money flowing in their town. One of the simplest most cost effective ways is to encourage tourists to call into there town and spend a few dollars. This is a win situation if handled correctly. Placing free camping in town is not a good idea as most people I know who mainly free camp, myself included, would rather camp well away from town as that is where potential security problems occur. Much of what the CMCA are doing relates to self contained vehicles parking within the town precinct. Not something that appeals to most caravaners. We would much prefer to be 10K out of town

With regard to the comment that there is no such thing as a free lunch.
Many councils provide, at huge expense to ratepayers, land and even buildings to attract businesses into towns so that employment can be improved in that town.
Free Campers are merely looking for just a bit of ground, out of the way, with some basic services provided and in return, most are happy to spend some money in that town out of appreciation.
I note here that some people are the exception and as one person said to me re “Free Loaders” that some boast they never spent one dollar in the town.. “Charming”
That is where our problem, as well as that towns problem, lays. More needs to be done by us to encourage the “Free Loaders” to do the right thing, even if it is only one tank of fuel this will still help the town.

Re in town facilities, not free facilities.
Most councils already have these facilities but they are only used a couple of times a year. I am thinking of show grounds here and many are in need of income so why close them down to the paying public just because the local caravan park wants a monopoly. It has always been “Whatever the traffic will bear”. Some caravan parks are not worth the bearing given the price they charge. Many are and they are the ones I use.

One place I stayed at recently I made a big deal of telling all the shop owners that I was purchasing from that I really appreciated the facility that their town provided and was spending money in the town, $300 in fact, in appreciation. Every one should do likewise if we are going to get anywhere with this free camping situation.

It is the old reward method, not the threat, which will win out in the end.

Most problems being faced by caravan parks are the same hoary problems which plague every business, OH&S and insurances and government regulation.

Cheers, Bruce.
At home and at ease on a track that I know not and
restless and lost on a track that I know. HL.

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AnswerID: 510987

Follow Up By: The Landy - Monday, May 13, 2013 at 17:32

Monday, May 13, 2013 at 17:32
Thanks Bruce, this is a blog I wrote some time ago...and I actually thought I was commenting on the original article, not sure why it ended up in the forum, wasn't my intention.


FollowupID: 789086

Follow Up By: Member - Scott M (NSW) - Tuesday, May 14, 2013 at 18:22

Tuesday, May 14, 2013 at 18:22
"That is where our problem, as well as that towns problem, lays. More needs to be done by us to encourage the “Free Loaders” to do the right thing, even if it is only one tank of fuel this will still help the town."

You might be on to something there Bruce. Maybe use or access of the 'cheaper' or 'free' council option comes with the option of spending a set amount in the town .... $50 or so. A simple voucher system would cover this....... those who would object to this and still wish to use the facilities would certainly fall into the "Free Loaders" category.
FollowupID: 789170

Reply By: The Bunyip - Tuesday, May 14, 2013 at 13:17

Tuesday, May 14, 2013 at 13:17
What a great read Landy.
You've eloquently made some very valid points.
In 1998, at the age of 34 I took my long service leave & headed around Australia with my wife. Prior to then we'd done plenty of camping in Vic NSW & SA over the years, apart from a trip across the Nullarbor & back with a mate many years earlier.
I'd never even heard of "free camps" then. We had a 4WD camper that needed pegging down & ideally grass underfoot so the thought of stopping on the roadside didn't appeal to us. Admittedly, our view may have changed had we a self contained caravan & the protection from the elements it affords. We were told by fellow travellers the "free camps" in Queensland in some cases even had toilets & showers. At one stage we were handed a pamphlet outlining all the "free camps" in WA. I was amazed that this was the case as I can't recall seeing any in Victoria,r NSW or SA.
Whilst I accept that costs are increasing, we will always stay in caravan parks. To us it just makes perfect sense & forms an integral part of the caravan & camping experience. Caravan parks provide certainty & if you do your homework online these days you can weed out the ones to avoid which was not the case back in 1998. If we have a choice, I generally steer towards the council backed caravan park.
Now I accept some may have differing views but even if we had a pop top or something similar, the convenience & access to basic facilities like a laundry, showers & even a games room for our kids to play & watch some TV all provide a diversion to driving hour after hour in our great country. Even an outdoor spa as was the case in Quilpie (Qld) in October last year!!!

As I say in my Exploroz profile," half the fun is getting there".

PS: I've no vested interests, just my opinion.
AnswerID: 511042

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