Campsites and Covid-19: ‘We are full to the gills from the moment we reopen’

Tents will see ‘biggest hit’, with campsites reducing number of tent pitches

Camping: ‘Social distancing will be the most onerous challenge’. Photograph: iStock

Camping: ‘Social distancing will be the most onerous challenge’. Photograph: iStock

 

All over the country people are giddy at the prospect of being able to save summer with a camping holiday. And that’s just the campsite owners.

“The phone has not stopped. We are full to the gills from the moment we reopen, on July 6th, until the end of August,” says Trea Heapes of Pure Camping on Co Clare’s Loop Head Peninsula.

Part of the reason she is booked out is because she will have to reduce capacity in order to meet new guidelines for campsites, published last week.

“Social distancing will be the most onerous challenge, particularly around communal spaces such as the kitchen,” says Heapes, who has invested in a new marquee to extend her campers’ kitchen.

The period between now and reopening will be spent putting procedures in place, including ground markers and wall signage.

“We’ll be asking for a lot of patience from our customers. We’ll be looking for them to help us in maintaining social distancing because there will be inspectors coming around to all hospitality providers,” she says.

Heapes has already lost half her season. To make up for it, and to meet what she hopes will be continuing demand from the home market, she will keep the site open until the end of October this year, an additional month.

This year’s bookings came in two surges, at the start of May when the Government’s original roadmap reopening date of July 20th was given, and two weeks ago, when the accelerated opening date of June 29th was announced.

There are challenges ahead however. Dublin saw by far the highest number of Covid-19 cases. Many of the rural areas that are home to campsites stayed virus-free. There are fears that some communities will not welcome holidaymakers this summer.

Some campsites are reducing the number of tent pitches available while others won’t take tents at all

It is a concern, acknowledges Con Quill, chief executive of the Irish Caravan and Camping Council and owner of Blarney Caravan and Camping Park.

“It is going to be difficult for a lot of communities that have been isolating themselves to suddenly see all these people coming in. It will have to be carefully managed and [holidaymakers] will have to adhere to the guidelines. At the same time, the local communities do need some business to keep them alive,” he says.

Quill’s organisation, which represents campsite owners, has 90 members. At the time of writing 55 had confirmed they will be reopening. He expects the vast majority of the rest will do so too, once they have worked through the new guidelines. Some may not reopen at all, however, particularly where owners are aged over 70 and feel the personal risk is too high, he says.

For others, the financial risk in not opening is simply too great.

“You’re relying on two months to do whatever business you’re going to do this year. If we didn’t reopen this summer we’d be facing what we call three winters,” says Quill. That is, two no-revenue winters punctuated by a dead loss summer.

Despite the reopening, those keen to stay under canvas may struggle to secure accommodation this year. Some campsites are reducing the number of tent pitches available while others won’t take tents at all because of their reliance on shared spaces such as toilets, showers blocks and kitchens. Those who come in campervans and caravans bring their own facilities with them.

Newtown Cove Caravan and Camping Park in Waterford is due to reopen on July 8th. The guidelines are “very confusing”, says owner John Good. “A lot of it seems to be left to our own interpretation ... but we are sticklers for regulation,” he explains.

He had thought it would be impossible to reopen TV and games rooms for example, “but it seems that the rest of the industry believes it is down to personal responsibility.”

“I had thought too that I wouldn’t be able to open the playground but now I see Dublin City Council talking about putting up parental responsibility signs in its playgrounds. It is the supervisory element that worries me. We couldn’t afford to pay someone to monitor the playground all day.”

Instilling confidence in holidaymakers will be a huge part of the challenge for all campsite operators

Newtown Cove will be operating at 50 per cent capacity and, on top of a season that has already been halved in length, “we’ll run at a loss, so it’s just to recoup a little,” he says. Despite the worries, he’s optimistic. “There’s no point in us opening if we can’t provide a place that people can enjoy and be happy in.”

Instilling confidence in holidaymakers will be a huge part of the challenge for all campsite operators, particularly as Quill points out, the majority of campervan and caravanners are aged over 70.

John O’Shea, owner of Wave Crest caravan and camping site in Caherdaniel, on the Ring of Kerry, spent this week organising signage, sanitisers and stock for his shop, ready for reopening on June 29th.

The park will be running at 60 per cent capacity, and he has introduced a new online booking system to ensure everyone who turns up is booked in, thereby, he hopes, reducing the incidence of people arriving “on spec”, this year at least.

Booking demand is “huge”, he says, exacerbated by those who had previously booked for August now keen to come in July instead.

While the new guidelines for campsites recommend that toilet blocks be cleaned at least twice daily, his have always been cleaned “six or seven times a day”.

“We’ll be encouraging people to use their self-sufficient campervans and caravan facilities anyway. Tents will see the biggest hit with this. We’ll have a limited number of places for tents,” he says.

The campsite, which is usually open year-round, closed on March 29th. Since then he has kept busy with grounds maintenance and flowerbeds. “It has been really weird,” he says.

“The object of the exercise is getting through the next year and holding on to the good will of our customers, some of whom have been coming down to us for two generations,” he says.

Says Trea Heapes. “We need people to take responsibility for themselves and their children too, to use the hand sanitisers, to socially distance in toilets and shower blocks, and to have that bit of patience and understanding.”

But customers aren’t the only ones at risk. “If we get Covid and have to isolate as a family, who is going to run our business?” asks Heapes. “It would be awful to think that you could have invested so much in reopening, only for it all to go bang. Fingers crossed.”

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