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Greece … or Devon? Camping Outshines Continent for Britons This Summer

LONDON — This summer, Louise Towers and her partner are loading their four children and Nellie the dog into a camper van for their annual holiday. It’s an honored tradition: Each of the past five summers, they took a road trip through continental Europe in a home-on-wheels.

But this year is different. Ms. Towers, 48, and her family will stick closer to home. Specifically, they’ll be at a campsite in Wales, “just an hour down the road.”

Traveling overseas just doesn’t feel safe during the pandemic, Ms. Towers said.

Across the country, in numbers that travel businesses say they had rarely seen before, lockdown-freed Britons are not only staying close to home this vacation season but spending it in motor homes, campers, campsites and glampsites. Vacationers are turning to camping as the holiday of choice for some social distancing in the great outdoors.

“For the first time in the U.K., owning a caravan is kind of cool,” said Gareth Mills, a 38-year-old father who lives on the English seaside, referring to big, boxy campers or motor homes. “Some of my parents’ friends who are caravan club enthusiasts, they are very smug at the moment.”

Mr. Mills and his wife and two young children have put off a planned family trip abroad and will head instead to a caravan park in September. “We’re trading Greece for Devon,” he said.

Hotels have largely reopened in England, but many of them are at 30 to 40 percent occupancy, with popular areas such as Cornwall and elsewhere in the southwest faring better, said Patricia Yates, a director at the tourism organization VisitBritain.

Still, concerns about crowds have kept many away from traditionally crowded coastline spots.

“People are looking to go to the countryside,” said Kay Barriball, the chair of Farm Stay U.K., an organization whose members offer lodging, camping and other rural accommodations.

Many are seeking a “relatively safe place to have a break,” Ms. Barriball said.

Finding a spot for your caravan or tent may be more competitive, as demand has surged. During a recent weekend, Pitchup.com, a booking site for camping spots, recorded 6,100 bookings, almost double the amount from the same weekend in 2019.

“We think that this sector is relatively well positioned,” said Dan Yates, the business’s founder.

Camping has deep roots in Britain. The man considered the father of modern camping, Thomas Hiram Holding, was a traveling London tailor whose 1908 how-to, “The Camper’s Handbook,” documents the joys of self-reliance and getting away from it all, inspiring generations. About the same time, the Boy Scouts were started in Britain, followed by the Girl Guides a couple of years later.

Caravan parks across Britain have been flooded with bookings for the traditional summer period and into the fall, according to the National Caravan Council, an industry group. Parkdean Resorts, which operates 67 parks across the country, reported a 140 percent rise from last year at its parks in Devon.

Huw Pendleton, the managing director of Celtic Holiday Parks in Wales, said he hadn’t seen anything like it in his two decades in the industry.

“We’re sold out pretty much through to September, with little or no availability now this season for the top-end lodges and glamping with hot tubs,” he said.

Ms. Towers, too, noticed how popular motor homes seemed to have become when she tried to sell her old one in the pandemic. She and her family were planning to buy a camper van instead to comfortably fit the whole family.

In March, she said, there was hardly any interest in her motor home, but in June she sold the vehicle within 24 hours. “There’s obviously a really high demand,” she said.

Other businesses are reporting similar increases. The Caravan and Motorhome Club said its site bookings were up more than 35 percent this summer. Canopy & Stars, a British travel agency that offers luxury camping, saw a 230 percent increase in traffic to its website, the company said. It added that it had its best booking day in 10 years when England lifted lockdown restrictions in July.

The surge is helping many of the companies balance out a sharp loss of business in the spring and early summer, before the lockdown eased.

Lindsay Berresford, the owner of Quirky Campers, a business in Bristol that rents out customized caravans, can usually count on the Glastonbury Festival in June as its largest revenue generator. An outdoor, weeklong gathering for music and other performing arts on a farm in Somerset, Glastonbury often draws about 200,000 people, including many campers. When it was canceled because of the pandemic, Quirky Campers lost nearly 400,000 pounds (about $520,000) in bookings, and staff members were furloughed, Ms. Berresford said.

Now business is back, and some vacationers are extending the season.

“We’re seeing bookings until the end of October, which is kind of unheard-of at this point in the year,” Ms. Berresford said.

Tourism experts say domestic vacations in Britain used to attract primarily older people and families with young children. Now, “we’ve seen a slightly different demographic,” said Ms. Yates of VisitBritain, as young adults forgo trips to the continent or farther for more local adventures.

Clem Balfour, a London native living in Bristol, recently spent 10 days exploring the southwest coast in a rented van. She had once rented a van for a vacation in Australia, but this was the longest vacation she had taken in England, she said.

“We had just as good a time in Cornwall as traveling a van in Australia,” Ms. Balfour, 34, said.

Carys Riley, 28, had never rented a camper van until this summer.

At the height of the pandemic, she was working as an intensive-care nurse at a hospital in the north of England. The unit’s bed capacity more than doubled as the coronavirus raged, her days stretching to 12 hours. When she could finally take time off, Ms. Riley was too scared to book anything abroad, she said.

“Having the camper van and our own space gave us a bit of reassurance so we didn’t have to interact with hotels,” said Ms. Riley, who drove more than 300 miles to Cornwall with her boyfriend.

“The beaches were full,” she said, “which isn’t ideal in a pandemic, but it was lovely.”

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