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Camping Outshines Continent for Britons This Summer During Covid Pandemic

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.

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Credit…Alex Atack for The New York Times

“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.

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Credit…Suzie Howell for The New York Times
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Credit…Suzie Howell for The New York Times
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Credit…Suzie Howell for The New York Times

“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.

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Credit…Suzie Howell for The New York Times

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.

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Credit…Alex Atack for The New York Times
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Credit…Alex Atack for The New York Times
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Credit…Alex Atack for The New York Times

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.

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Credit…Suzie Howell for The New York Times

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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Credit…Alex Atack for The New York Times
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Credit…Suzie Howell for The New York Times
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Credit…Alex Atack for The New York Times
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This Year’s Summer Campground: Our Bedrooms and Living Rooms

Children at Interlochen Arts Camp in Michigan are doing all the usual this summer. They are taking dance and acting classes, learning to tie knots and weaving friendship bracelets. On some days, they sing campfire songs.

At Wolf Camp in rural Washington, the rhythms are also the same. Campers are still getting lessons about nature, learning about trees and birds and animal tracking. Even Super Soccer Stars, a sports camp in 13 states, is in business.

Campers are now just doing all of this from their computers, in their bedrooms and living rooms.

The seemingly endless spread of the coronavirus has entered the summer camp season. That means young people who have spent three months taking school classes on their computers are staying right there. For many American kids, camp looks just like a computer screen.

The camps are adapting by getting children in nature classes to study their sidewalk tree or the sky outside their window. On some occasions, campers all turn off the mute buttons of their videoconferences to sing songs together. At soccer camps, one new motto is “Give us five feet by five feet and we’ll turn it into a soccer field.” And when youngsters weave a friendship bracelet, they put it on their own wrist — not a fellow camper’s.

At least that is how the city-dwelling lower and middle class are doing camp. The upper middle class and the rich have made alternative arrangements, moving to rural areas and second homes and banding together with nearby families to hire private camp counselors.

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Credit…Interlochen Center for the Arts

Those taking summer camp online include Sebastien Lee-Rossing, 17, in Grand Rapids, Mich. He made some changes to turn his bedroom classroom into his bedroom campground when Interlochen’s theater classes started in June. He put away his school supplies and papers. He cleared off his computer’s desktop, which he said had felt very good.

“I got to delete everything,” he said. “It’s like a weight off my chest. The summer vibe’s started to set in. The mood’s more summery.”

His 15-year-old sister, Adrien, is an Interlochen camper, too, but they don’t see each other much during the day. She goes to camp down the hall, in her room. Interlochen’s online camp for high schoolers is $2,950 for three weeks, compared with about $9,000 for the normal sleep-away version for six weeks.

Some regions are technically allowing camps to open for in-person attendance, but the requirements are so stringent, few are choosing to do so.

“I read the guidelines for how to reopen legally,” said Adam Simon, who runs Odyssey Teen Camp in Tolland, Mass., for youths with social anxiety. “When they started talking about sanitizing bathrooms after every time someone used it, I was like, ‘Who’s going to do that?’ We can’t do that.”

So they all sit on Zoom together most of the day.

In some ways, an unstructured summer at home is a return to an older way of parenting, said Chris Chisholm, the founder of Wolf Camp.

“It’s kind of getting kids to do what we used to do, which is go out and play, find something to do, and come back when you hear the dinner bell,” he said.

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The virtual Wolf Camp in rural Washington.

Mornings at Wolf Camp start with an hour of online instruction. Then children are sent out on a two-hour assignment in their neighborhood. There is a virtual lunch from noon to 12:30 p.m., then an online review and a show-and-tell. Families pay what they can, and Mr. Chisholm’s recommendation is from around $100 to $500, depending on their financial situation.

The campers are encouraged to find nooks outdoors to do wilderness study.

“They gave them a choice: Go sit in a tree, go sit under a tree, go sit somewhere you might be able to crawl under a bunch of stuff,” said Gabriella Ashford, a bookkeeper in Port Townsend, Wash., whose three children are doing Wolf Camp.

For Yoga Bharati, a yoga summer camp in San Jose, Calif., the hardest part of the Zoom classes is that the campers, especially the ones around age 6, run away. Excited kids do that sometimes. Bored ones, too. Once campers are offscreen, a counselor can’t do much to wrangle them.

“We have to engage the parents quite a bit,” said Ashwini Surpur, who runs the camp, which also teaches Bhagavad Gita chanting and Devanagari reading and writing. “So if children go off the camera we text the parents, because, I mean, children run away.”

Parents often become de facto counselors. For yoga camp, that means helping with poses like backbends and handstands.

“Today we learned chakrasana,” Ms. Surpur said. “It’s a hard pose, so we told the kids to call their parents over. All the inversion poses and things like that, we just want parents to be around.”

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And so camps have to be engaging and fun to watch.

“We basically made the commitment to make a 10-week interactive television show,” said Karen Tingley, education director of the New York City zoo summer camps, which have been going for 40 years.

The 1,000 or so campers log on each day, and there are four synchronous streams for different age groups, she said.

“One day, we’ll go behind the scenes and meet the penguin keeper, or another day we have a live animal encounter where we’ll meet one of our animal ambassadors — a fox or a rabbit or a snake,” Ms. Tingley said. “The next day they’re doing yoga with our educational staff in our shark exhibit.”

Since no one needs a campground this summer, some are getting into the camp game for the first time. Yanky Horowitz runs Baketivity, a subscription service based in New York City that sends out baking boxes for different recipes. It has started Bake-a-Camp, a four-week summer baking journey. Around 500 campers have enrolled.

“We knew if we were going to keep the kids occupied, it had to be more than cookie making,” Mr. Horowitz said.

Each week, the baking gets harder. The campers start with simple cookies. The most advanced level is a three-layered lemon zest cake, with cream icing on top and cream puffs on the side.

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Super Soccer Stars, a sports camp in 13 states.

Sports camps are the most challenging to replicate in apartments and bedrooms.

Before Covid-19, Super Soccer Stars had 100,000 students going through its programs annually, taught by 650 coaches.

Adam Geisler, the chief executive, has tried to reformat Super Soccer Stars for Zoom, charging $45 to $55 a month for online courses. During class, he has two coaches going at once, with one to teach and one to watch the kids and maneuver the Zoom screen. They want to make sure each child feels special and celebrated, even as a little square on a screen of many.

“We’ll do Zoom around the room,” Mr. Geisler said. “Everyone can show their big kick.”

Those in an apartment kick the air rather than a soccer ball. Still, counselors try to keep energy high.

“We’ll say: ‘OK, everybody, we’re going to unmute for two minutes. Let’s hear your scream,’” Mr. Geisler said. “And we Zoom around the room and hear from everybody.”

For more money, people can hire a private camp counselor, so Super Soccer Stars is also hosting socially distanced micro-camps in backyards for around $500 a week for one camper (more if there are more campers). The option started in the Hamptons. It has expanded to Los Angeles, Washington, parts of Massachusetts, San Diego and San Francisco. The day the option was announced, Mr. Geisler said, 500 private groups made requests.

For children without a soccer ball, Super Soccer Stars coaches are trained to teach how to make one out of T-shirts and rubber bands.

One of the parents trying to balance sports camp from an apartment is Stacy Igel, who has a 5-year-old son in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Ms. Igel, founder and creative director of the fashion line Boy Meets Girl, said her living room — which had already become a multipurpose area — was now also a soccer field. She moved the sofa to fit a net and positioned an iPad on a cardboard box so her son could see the instructor while kicking a ball around.

“The first time, he was spooked,” Ms. Igel said. “As a 5-year-old, he wasn’t on devices that much.”

As the weather warmed, they have been able to go outside. Ms. Igel props the iPad on the lawn. She has started paying for one-on-one lessons once a week, which are legal in the city so long as the instructor keeps distance and wears a mask.

“Just to have that personal contact with a real human is amazing,” Ms. Igel said. “After so many months of him being alone, I almost cried.”

But she can pay for only a day a week, and she knows they are lucky to have that.

“Zoom is a lot cheaper,” she said.