As I've been travelling around Australia, whether it's along the long highways of the Outback or up the coast of the eastern seaboard, there's one thing I continually come across: campervans (and caravans).
The statistics show that it's not just my imagination. Campervan and caravan sales have soared this year, and the holiday parks where their owners park them have been booming since domestic travel began again in Australia in June. Those that had the time (mainly retirees) immediately took their campervans up north for months in winter. Families piled into theirs for trips to the beach in the holidays. And the more nomadic type of travellers went wherever they could - leading to a curious expression I came across often in New South Wales of people 'bouncing off the borders' as they reached a roadblock and turned around to go somewhere else in the state.
The reasons for the rise of the van seem obvious at first glance. A lot of people who would normally have travelled overseas are taking extended trips in their own country instead. (I have honestly lost count of the times I've heard people tell staff in country towns that they "would normally be in Tuscany this time of year".) And there's probably an element of risk mitigation, that people feel safer from COVID if they can sleep (and eat) in their own vehicle, rather than go to a new hotel each night.
There is, though, another large factor that can't be ignored. Travelling in Australia is really expensive. It pains me to say this, because I am a proud flag-waver for domestic tourism and would encourage as much travel this year as possible. But the reality is that not everyone can afford to do it the way an international visitor might - and even those who can might limit their number of domestic trips because of cost factors.
Recently I stayed in a motel in a rural town (which I won't name) that was perfectly acceptable but nothing special; the kind of place where the bedspread matches the carpet (and not by design). It was an adequate place to stop for the night and I appreciated the complimentary Nescafe and Scotch Finger biscuits. What I found harder to swallow was the almost $200 a night price tag!
Not every motel is that expensive but, if you were to do a two-week driving trip in Australia, basic accommodation might set you back a minimum of $2000 a couple, while higher-quality rooms could easily cost $4000 for the trip. For that same amount, you could probably take a holiday to Asia for a fortnight, including flights.
And, of course, I haven't even factored in the cost of attractions and food in Australia, which we know is not cheap compared to most other countries (even notoriously pricey countries like Japan and the UK tend to have cheaper food than here). I like to think that the quality of the meals in Australia makes the expense worth it most of the time. Whether it's a juicy schnitzel at a country pub or an intricate tasting menu at a top city hotel, dining out on local ingredients and internationally inspired cuisine is a highlight of travelling around the country. But it adds up.
With all this in mind, it was no surprise to see that caravan parks were extremely popular during the latest September school holidays. Figures from the Caravan Industry Association of Australia show that, across the country, cabins were at 72 per cent occupancy while powered sites were at 64 per cent capacity during the holidays - and this was despite lockdowns and border closures. Most of them are preparing for a summer holiday period that's likely to be the busiest ever.
While both anecdotal and official statistics suggest that the coronavirus is leading to an increase in caravan and campervan holidays (and sales) this year, it's worth noting that the industry was already becoming more popular. The Caravan Industry Association of Australia's latest annual report shows that 2019 was a record year, with 14 million caravan trips taken across the country, a rise of 9 per cent on the year before. Since 2010, almost 200,000 new caravans or campervans have been registered in Australia (almost one for every hundred people in the country).
And with the rise in popularity, there's also been a shift in the demographics, which has only accelerated during the pandemic. The stereotype of the grey nomad in a campervan still exists, but it now makes up a smaller proportion of the RV crowd. Caravans and campervans are becoming much more popular with families and there are apparently even a lot of young couples investing in them. With so many people able to work remotely, it's made longer trips easier for people who might previously have just taken short overseas holidays.
This is all good news for the Australian domestic tourism industry generally, but I suspect it will lead to some operators reassessing their business models. They may need to look at how they can compete with - or complement - a new horde of domestic travellers who are taking longer holidays and looking for better daily value; travellers who already have somewhere to sleep and somewhere to cook a meal, but still want to enjoy everything our regions can offer.
Michael Turtle will be bringing you new ideas each week for travel within Australia. You can see more details on his Travel Australia Today website.