Popularity of camper vans on rise during COVID-19 pandemic

Local travellers are adding to the boom of camper vans and RV rentals this summer, with more international travellers expected in 2022.

A handout photo of a Karma Camper Van. The vans are sold in Calgary and Richmond.

With travel restrictions easing across Canada, camper-van rentals are growing in popularity as a vacation option during COVID-19. While the Canada-U.S. border remains closed, Canadians are already booking trips to local campsites.

“The traffic has certainly increased. We are seeing a very full June and July in Alberta and B.C. We’re about 85 per cent sold-out in Alberta until the end of September and 70 per cent sold-out from July to the end of September in B.C.,” Dave Wald, managing partner of Karma Campervans, said. “I’m expecting that the rest of the summer will fill up until the fall again just like last year because people have gotten a bit of cabin fever, they need to scratch that travel itch. They may not necessarily be ready to get on the airplane, but they’re certainly ready to get into a vehicle, and explore their provinces.”

With transportation and lodging all-in-one, camper vans allow people to travel without having to expose themselves to possible COVID by stopping at a hotel or other places where they may interact with other people.

“Camper vans are like hotel rooms on wheels. Our particular models are 100 per cent off-grid and are easy to drive. You can travel for long distances and if you get tired, you can just pull up beside the road and have a nap. So, they’re quite versatile and anyone can feel comfortable behind the wheel,” he said.

Wald has 23 vans operating in both Calgary and Vancouver as the company saw a need in the market for comfortable, easy-to-drive, affordable camping-van rentals. Though they lost almost 100 per cent of their bookings in April and May last year, followed by a surprising uptick in the fall, Wald is expecting a “huge influx of international travellers” if the border opens.

“We’re getting excited for the travel boom of 2022. We’re preparing actually quite extensively for 2022. We’re already putting orders in for more vehicles, building owner processes and making the company that much better and ready for when Canada invites the world back,” he said.

The popularity of camper vans and the pent-up demand for travel is being felt by many camper-van and RV-rental businesses. William Jarvis, owner of Honest Camper, is seeing a big demand for his vehicles as well.

“With the most recent travel restrictions being lifted a bit, we’ve been pretty much sold-out for most of July, all of August and into September. We’ve definitely noticed an uptick in the number of people reaching out to inquire or simply making bookings online, so it’s definitely trending in the right way,” Jarvis said.

His small, boutique-style rental firm is witnessing the increased popularity of the smaller-footprint-style camper vans this year, which include a couple of ’80s-style Volkswagen Vanagons and Mercedes sprinters owned by his company.

May to August is usually a fairly busy time for Jarvis’s business, but after a couple of slow months recently, they’ve already reached 50 per cent capacity this week. Though 70 per cent of their clientele has been international in the past, they’re seeing a boom of local travellers this summer.

“Next week is when we really start to see things pick-up, so we’re looking at 75 per cent occupancy after that. Local folks obviously are the ones who are driving all this … We’ve kind of missed the boat already for international people. Even if they (government) open it up tomorrow, we’re booked pretty solidly,” he said.

Michael Smalley, vice-president of Cruise Canada, concurs as his company is seeing more reservations domestically, but the numbers are still nowhere close to “the peaks of how Canada is popular with foreigners and camping.”

“Our Canada operations are going to go through a second summer of, maybe five to eight per cent capacity versus 2019. We have had some luck with local families travelling,” Smaller said. “For the second year in a row, it is looking like it’s going to trend 90 per cent down versus 2019 pre-pandemic levels.”

But their U.S. operations have been much more robust. Smalley is hearing a similar high demand for Canada bookings from their international tour operators.

“There’s a tremendous amount of pent-up demand. I hear it every day from tour operators, we’re just waiting-and-waiting. We’ve got customers in the queue. Once it happens and the airlines can get their schedules straight and the airport’s open up, it’ll return to normal quicker than we think in Canada at least from a tourism perspective,” Smalley said.

“A lot of the customers have rebooked for 2022, so we are seeing a considerable demand for 2022 already. And we hope by then, things will be fairly back to normal.”

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