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‘Roughing It’ in Arizona Continues Upward March

September 21, 2009 by   - () Leave a Comment

apache-sitgraves-national-forests-logoThe sluggish economy has pointed budget-minded Americans to the great outdoors.

Most campgrounds in east-central Arizona’s Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests have been full this summer, said Trisha Spear of Recreation Resource Management of America Inc., a private company that operates campgrounds in the forests.

“I’ve been doing this for 17 years, and I’ve noticed that every time the economy goes down, we notice an increase in visitation because it’s a cheaper vacation,” Spear said.

She saw this on Fourth of July weekend, which she spent at Big Lake in the White Mountains, according to the Arizona Republic.

“I was out camp-hosting, and it was chaos. It was crazy,” she said.

The trend continued through Labor Day for the most part, she said, although some high-country storms kept people away from the White Mountains.

“We were busy,” she said. “The areas that are close to Phoenix, we did really well.”

“It’s really quite encouraging,” said Christine Fanning of the Outdoor Foundation. “In these days and times, not many industries are seeing a silver lining.”

Fanning said her group, which monitors trends in the outdoor industry, was seeing increased participation in tent camping, backpacking, trail running and mountain biking in 2008. And although combined retail sales for the outdoor industry declined slightly, sales of camping gear were up this spring, the foundation reports. Chain retailers reported sales of basic items like tents and low-end sleeping bags increasing more than 70%.

Those numbers changed to declines as the summer progressed, but clothing sales have increased, Fanning said.

“Camping is somewhat seasonal, like skiing and other things,” she said. “I think some of the trend is still there.”

Recreational Equipment Inc. reported that sales of family tents were up 10% for the summer. Camp stoves were up 16%, and camp furniture was up 11%.

At the Grand Canyon, requests for backcountry permits are up compared with last year.

“I think anyone you talk to at this office would say there’s an increase in the number of people asking for backcountry permits,” said Michael Schramm of the Grand Canyon backcountry office. “We’re definitely seeing an increase.”

Tent camping at the Canyon campgrounds was up in the spring, as well, said Jim O’Sickey of the Grand Canyon’s fee-management office.

“I would say that things picked up during the spring,” with an increase of about 10%, he said. During the summer, campgrounds are always full, and this year is no different.

Changing attitudes may also have contributed to this trend. Fanning wonders if a shift in values is taking place as people simplify their lives while cutting costs.

“We’ve been plugged in and on the grid for so long that I think people are using this as an excuse to jump off the grid and jump into some natural activities,” she said.

Charles Kurre of Arizona Hiking Shack in Phoenix said, “The one thing about being in the backcountry . . . is that it’s a stress reliever. The health benefits of getting out there and just going for a walk are phenomenal.”

He said he has been seeing customers who haven’t been backpacking in 20 years.

Kampgrounds of America Inc. (KOA), a chain with locations across the country, posted a record year in 2007. In 2008, its numbers were down slightly, said Mike Gast, a spokesman for the company. The drop was not surprising in light of $4-a-gallon gas last summer.

This spring, however, the company started noticing an interesting trend: Many visitors were within a day’s drive of home. They also were staying longer.

“Our numbers are remarkably strong this year,” Gast said. By the July 4th weekend, visitation had increased nationwide, compared with the same time last year, and they had a good showing on Labor Day.

“We’re having a strong finish,” Gast said. “We’re doing better than we were doing last year.”

KOA campgrounds are not for the rugged-outdoors family. They have swimming pools, trampolines, nature walks, arts-and-crafts classes for kids and ponds with paddleboats. They have cabins and cottages, which the company can’t build fast enough.

“Folks that would have rented a beach house in Cape Cod are giving us a try instead,” Gast said.

KOA also has noticed that people aren’t making reservations very far in advance anymore.

“They are holding off and holding off and holding off,” Gast said. “We just have to get used to the fact that they’re coming, they’re just not coming till the last minute.”

Increased interest in the outdoors is not confined to camping and hiking. Bass Pro Shops has been doing fine during the recession, said Larry Whiteley, manager of communications for the chain. Bass Pro carries camping gear as well as hunting and fishing equipment.

“Ever since the economic downturn started, we started to be proactive rather than reactive,” Whiteley said. “We’ve probably spent more on marketing than in years past,” he said, adding that the emphasis has paid off.

“It’s bringing new people to our stores,” he said.

Whiteley said a store survey also indicated that people who camp, hunt and fish say they plan to keep doing those things no matter how bad the economy gets.

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