In down economy, RI parks see a boost

Providence, R.I. – When Eleanor Dove Harris wants to get away she doesn't go far from her Charlestown home. She and her husband camp out at Burlingame State Park, just 20 minutes away.

"My husband and I came to a place not too long ago where we realized we lived in this vacation destination Mecca and as often as we want to go elsewhere we've learned we have beautiful oceans and parks right here," she said.

Elizabeth Smith and Andrew Stephens of Westerly had the same idea. They're at Burlingame for a two-week vacation. They say it's better than staying in a hotel.

"Not only is it less expensive but it's generally more fun, you know?" Stephens says. "I mean, you can find so much to do."

Smith says she's impressed by the facilities. "The bathrooms are spectacular," she says. "I've never been in a campground with such clean bathrooms in them. They must come here once an hour and clean these bathrooms."

These three Rhode Islanders represent a trend in summer vacations: a return to camping. Rhode Island state parks Chief Bob Paquette says state campgrounds saw a six percent increase in use last year, despite heavy rains in early summer. With better weather this year, Paquette expects it to be even busier.

The camping boomlet is a nationwide phenomenon. Linda Profaizer, of the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds, says bookings are running five to 10 percent higher than last year.

"The business of RV parks and campgrounds has always run counter to the economy," Profaizer says. "I mean, we have pretty steady business all the time but in a down economy our parks will stay pretty steady. And the reason for that is it's a more affordable vacation. "

The economic advantages are undeniable. For $98- the price of a room for a single night at an average hotel- you can spend the entire week at a Rhode Island campground, where tent sites rent for $14 a night for state residents.

Sure you have to cook and clean up after yourself, but Elizabeth Smith, of Westerly, says that's part of the charm.

"I like grilling," Smith says. "I like making hamburgers and stuff because they taste a lot different than they do on a stove."

Most campers who frequent Rhode Island state campgrounds are from New England. But you'll also find people from out of the region, like 28-year-old Christian Seaman, of Syracuse.

"My girlfriend and I decided we'd come out for the Memorial Day holiday and we're staying a bit later," Seaman says. "I've heard a lot about the beaches here in the campground."

One new trend in camping may be frowned on by purists. Roughly 90 percent of privately owned campgrounds now offer WIFI, according to the National RV Parks and Campgrounds Association. Whispering Pines campground in Hope Valley is one of them -- even though its owner, Clint Ramsden,
disapproves of it.

"I harp on parents, saying, Why are you letting these kids play these games all the time when you're out here where they can see things they've never seen before?'" Ramsden says. "But they do it."

Despite its potential for added revenue, Rhode Island state parks have so far resisted the WIFI trend, says state parks chief Bob Paquette.

"We don't offer WIFI," he says. "It's something I've explored I don't want the kids to be in the camper and watching on the Internet. I'd rather see them outside enjoying the campfire. But we know the demand is out there."

So will the camping craze continue once the economy improves? It's possible. Bob Paquette and other campground managers say once people get a taste for sleeping under the stars, they'll come back for more.