SIOUX FALLS, SD — With Labor Day weekend fast approaching, campgrounds across South Dakota are saying they are operating at or near capacity, meaning the options for a vacation postponer looking to camp at a state park are dwindling Most cases are limited to the first. first served seats.
The Sept. 3-5 holiday weekend marks the unofficial end of a summer travel season that saw visitor numbers to the state down about 2% through July from last year’s record numbers.
But the state’s camping industry, a major driver of the tourism industry, has changed significantly since the pandemic began, with most new developments in the private sector being a quick market response to record RV sales in 2021.
RV Industry Association President Craig Kirby attributed the surge in sales during the pandemic to the vehicles allowing people to “enjoy an active, outdoor lifestyle while taking control of their environment.”
A key difference between private and public campgrounds for the needs of travelers during the pandemic has to do with the availability of amenities like wireless internet, says Chris Hipple, owner of Leavitt Recreation and Hospitality, the nation’s largest private campground insurer.
“In many cases there was a mandate to work from home,” said Hipple, whose company is based in Sturgis. “You could invite your family and go to South Dakota and camp at a different campground each week, and as long as you had Wi-Fi and cell phone service, you could function and people didn’t really care where you were. off.”
While there have been no exact numbers on new private campgrounds since the pandemic began, Mary Arlington, the executive director of the South Dakota Campground Owners Association, a group made up of about a third of the state’s private campground owners, said they have gained seven members during the pandemic, making a total of 40 owners.
Hipple, who has a more statewide view of the industry, said South Dakota’s private campground market tends to be less “boom or bust” than states like Florida or California because it’s driven by “individuals who decide to camp.” to be built, and not led by corporate investors.”
One such new venture is River City Campground in Chamberlain, where owners Adam Donaldson and Anthony Farnsworth say they have filled about a third of their 35 sites less than two weeks after opening.
River City Campground, a private park in Chamberlain, opened less than two weeks ago. Record RV purchases in 2020 and 2021 have supported several new campgrounds across the state.
Photo courtesy of Anthony Farnsworth
“He and I only talked one day because he can never find a place to camp. My dad is from Wyoming and he would come out and try to find a place but it was always full,” Farnsworth said, referring to a conversation with Donaldson, who runs a water and sewer construction company. “So we talked and found a piece of land that was close to town and we settled on it.”
However, the biggest concern for new campground owners is an increase in public campgrounds. In her budget speech late last year, Gov. Kristi Noem called for 175 new campgrounds at Custer State Park, a nearly $10 million expansion she said is necessary to meet a tourism boom that has resulted in a “record boom” in park visits .
That recommendation never materialized because it was rejected by a coalition of environmental groups and the Campground Owners Association, a group of around 40 private campground owners in the state.
Steve Saint, the association’s president and owner of Fort Welikit Family Campground in Custer, said opposition is about both fairness and improved efficiency. Saint says that while the state has priced each RV site at about $56,000, it can build one for less than $20,000.
Steve Saint, the president of the South Dakota Campground Owners Association and owner of the Fort Welikit Family Campground in Custer, has been part of the opposition to an expansion of state-funded campgrounds at Custer State Park.
Courtesy of Steve Saint
“There are 45 campgrounds within 15 miles of the Custer State Park entrance,” Saint said. “Our argument was that we pay taxes, just like everyone else, and the state would take that tax money, build a campground, and then charge half.”
According to Custer State Park’s website, the cost of a campground with minimal amenities starts at $7 per person per night, compared to $27 for a similar spot at Saint’s campground.
And while prices are becoming more comparable at the higher end of amenities and comfort, private campground owners fear competition for visitors from reopened resorts, cruises and other forms of high-end travel will fall slightly in 2022, marking the start of a worrying trend putting some of them out of business.
“It won’t last forever,” Saint said. “I’ll probably never see again how many people and how full we were in 2021.”
Jason Harward is a reporter for America Corps who covers state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at 605-301-0496 or [email protected]