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Life's a Beach for Summertime Vacationers -- Who Plan Early

Coastal parks already are booked solid every weekend from June through Labor Day as camping close to home grows in popularity.

March 17, 2004|Debora Vrana | Times Staff Writer

Every June, Debbie Bernstein takes her family camping for a weekend at Leo Carrillo State Park in Malibu.

Not this summer.

By mid-January, when the Santa Monica mother of two called to book a reservation, all campsites were taken. "It's more popular this year, it seems," said Bernstein, 39.

The most-coveted travel reservation in California this summer might just be a patch of dirt with a fire pit and wooden picnic table at your local state park.

About a fifth of California's 277 state parks -- the majority of them on the beach -- are already booked solid every weekend from June through Labor Day, more than double the number of parks booked by this time last year.

"It's going through the roof this year," said Roy Stearns, deputy director of California's state park system. "People simply want to escape, and they don't want to go far to do it."

At the rate it's going, officials estimate, the state's most popular coastal campsites will be booked by the first day of summer, although they note that there are plenty of inland parks that will have sites available.

Ongoing safety concerns, the hassles of air travel and a desire to cocoon with family members since 9/11 -- not to mention the slowly recovering economy that has Americans cutting back on vacation spending -- all have made camping an increasingly attractive option for families, analysts said.

In 2003, reservations for California's 15,000 campsites were up 4% from the previous year, according to ReserveAmerica, a subsidiary of publicly traded IAC Inc., which holds government contracts to handle bookings for 150,000 campsites and cabins on federal, state and private land.

Attendance at California's state parks increased 32% to about 85 million in 2003 from 64.4 million in 1995, according to state data. This year, even more tents are expected to be pitched throughout California. On Jan. 2 -- the first day the public could reserve campsites for July -- a record 5,000 calls poured in during the first hour.

Dates for August and September are just as desirable. The number of reservations made Feb. 1 for August slots broke all company records, with 13,589 bookings, up from about 10,000 made the same day last year, said ReserveAmerica spokesman John McDonald. About 60% of these sites are for tent camping, with 40% for RV and pop-up trailer camping, he said. Likewise, 7,242 campers clogged phone and Internet lines March 1 in search of September openings, a 73% surge in the number of requests from a year ago.

Not only state parks, but private campgrounds too, are bracing for a busy summer. Kampgrounds of America Inc., which operates a network of 500 campgrounds nationwide, said its California parks have seen increased bookings this year, fueled in part by family campers.

Jim Lawrence, owner of KOA's Manchester Beach campground in Mendocino, said the rate of reservations is up 10% this year over last, and the coastal site is booked every weekend this summer.

"What we're seeing is back-to-nature, family values, close-to-home vacations," said Bruce Baltin, a travel industry consultant with PKF Consulting in Los Angeles. "And obviously camping falls right in there. I don't see anything to stop this trend. It's not really a cost issue, but a value issue."

That's why analysts don't expect Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's decision to hike park fees to dampen campers' enthusiasm. Beginning with stays starting July 1, camping fees will more than double at some sites to about $30, including ReserveAmerica's $7.50 one-time booking fee. Not surprisingly, the typical camping excursion costs considerably less than other types of vacations, and analysts point out that campers don't contribute as much to California's economy as do other tourists.

During 2002, the most recent year for which data were available, travelers who stayed at hotels added $33.1 billion to state coffers, while campers ponied up just $500 million, according to a survey by Oregon consulting firm Dean Runyan Associates commissioned by the state.

Yet experts don't see the rise in camping's popularity hurting California's hospitality industry. People who camp, Baltin said, aren't avoiding hotels; they are seeking an experience hotels can't give them. And they are still spending money: According to the Travel Industry Assn. of America trade group, 65 million Americans camp out every year and drop about $1.5 billion on equipment.

Among them will be Debbie Bernstein and her family. Although the Bernsteins won't be summer camping this year -- the family of four were able to secure a site at their favorite beach in early May instead -- they plan to book early next year. "Now we know, call in December for June," she said. "But I don't want anyone else to know."



Camping sites

The top 10 most popular state parks in California:

Bolsa Chica State Beach (Orange County)

* Carpinteria State Beach (Santa Barbara County)

* Clear Lake State Park (Lake County)

* Doheny State Beach (Orange County)

* Emerald Bay State Park (El Dorado County)

* Lake Oroville State Recreation Area (Butte County)

* Montana de Oro State Park (San Luis Obispo County)

* San Elijo State Beach (San Diego County)

* Seacliff State Beach (Santa Cruz County)

* South Carlsbad State Beach (San Diego County)

Source: ReserveAmerica

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