The freedom camping goldmine - NZ's 29,500 motorhome owners video


Kiwi motorhomers Sharron and Chris King spend about 50 nights a year on the road and say freedom camping can be worth a lot to small towns.

 Impatient drivers refer to motorhomes as road slugs or maggots because they're white and crawling.

But New Zealand's growing motorhome fleet is an economic force to be reckoned with, and these wallets on wheels are literally driving business into small towns all over the country.

Officially any vehicle with permanently fitted cooking and sleeping facilities taking up more than half the floor area is supposed to be registered as a motorhome. 

According to the New Zealand Transport Agency we have 29,582 of them, 6000 more than in 2011.

* Freedom campers now have to travel with a toilet they can use inside their vehicle
* Freedom campers welcomed into more business parking and home driveways
* Illegal freedom campers owe more than $1.5 million in fines

Commercial rentals account for at least 5000 vehicles, so the vast majority are privately owned by New Zealanders and tourists who buy second hand campers or get vans retro-fitted. 

The Kiwi motorhome explosion

Seclusion, scenery and saving money are all reasons given for the popularity of freedom camping.
Cherie Palmer

Seclusion, scenery and saving money are all reasons given for the popularity of freedom camping.

The New Zealand Motor Caravan Association (NZMCA) has 73,000 members (mostly couples) and membership is growing about 12 per cent a year.

In March the country's biggest motorhome and caravan show in Auckland recorded between $28m and $30m worth of sales.

That included 130 motorhomes costing anywhere from $100,000 for a lower end model, right up to $300,000 for a fancy one with slide out sides.

"They're just like an apartment on wheels, they're so highly spec-ed, " says Chris Gaskell, managing director of show organiser Spot On Exhibitions, and editor of The Motor Caravanner​ magazine.

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About half the buyers were over 60, so-called grey nomads realising long held dreams to hit the road. 

"Particularly in this part of the country where the overheated housing market has given people approaching retirement the opportunity to down size their houses and take some cash out too," Gaskell says. 

Owners can also rent out their campers through Mighway​ and Share-a-Camper, and the returns are so good, some are buying second vehicles as investments.


Mobile baches

Gaskell sees the market continuing to grow with another 13 years of baby boomer retirements to go.

Hundreds of campervans attending a Music in the Mountains Festival at the Tapawera Area School illustrate the financial ...

Hundreds of campervans attending a Music in the Mountains Festival at the Tapawera Area School illustrate the financial benefits motorhomes carry to small towns.

Real estate agent Sharron​ King and husband Chris bought their first motor home more than 30 years ago and she says it's much better than being tied to a holiday home.

At Queen's Birthday weekend it was a toss up between Tekapo, Hanmer Springs or the West Coast. 

"You can change the scenery when you've had enough. You're always in the same place with a bach."

The couple live at Waikuku Beach just out of Christchurch and currently have three motorhomes.

The converted former Kinleith workers' bus is on the market, already replaced by a nippier four wheel drive model, and their largest vehicle is a self contained nine metre bus with a shower and flushing loo.

King hates being lumped in with the irresponsible freedom campers who leave scenic spots strewn with rubbish and poo in public places.

An estimated 100,000 overseas visitors went freedom camping at some stage last year, but it's unclear whether the trend ...

An estimated 100,000 overseas visitors went freedom camping at some stage last year, but it's unclear whether the trend will continue to grow.

"People look at us as being the same, but we're not."

Wallets on wheels

The Kings spend about 50 nights away a year, and spend is the operative word - the Easter rally they attended dropped more than $25,000 in Kaikoura, one of 47 designated "motorhome friendly" towns. 

The Motor Caravan Association has invested $1m promoting the towns which welcome motorhomers​ by providing freedom camping areas and waste dump stations, which it often pays for.

Association chief executive Bruce Lochore says free advertising of events to members carries real clout and 400 motorhomes parked up in a paddock set aside for self-contained vehicles at the Marton country music festival.

Westport is a motor home friendly town and Buller mayor Garry Howard sees a world of difference between messy freedom campers travelling in unself-contained vehicles and these "desirable tourists." 

"They're the winers and diners, they don't just go into the supermarket for the basics.

"They're also looking at community projects to plant trees and help with walk ways, so we're very pleased."

What about the foreign freedom campers?

Areas like the Mackenzie District are clamping down on vehicles that don't have a useable toilet on board.

Areas like the Mackenzie District are clamping down on vehicles that don't have a useable toilet on board.

The Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment (MBIE) says the number of international visitors who did some freedom camping during their stay surpassed 100,000 last year, compared with just 10,000 in the early 2000s. 

But the figures are based on the 9000 tourists who take part in the international visitor survey, and because of the small sample size it's too early to say whether the recent upwards trend will continue. 

The Responsible Camping Forum (RCF), a group representing tourism operators, local authorities and government agencies, recently commissioned a review of freedom camping research.


Geozone's anonymous tracking of app users illustrates campervan movements around the country. The colours represent different nationalities with green dots demoting English-speakers.

It found that campers tended to come from Australia, New Zealand, the UK and Europe (in particular Germany) and were usually aged under 35, or older couples travelling without children.

They freedom camped to enjoy the scenery, avoid crowded camp grounds, and save money, but they also stayed in commercial holiday parks. 

The review concludes more research is needed, for example, into how many of Kiwi freedom campers are actually seasonal workers and homeless people living out of their cars.

MBIE says total annual spending by visiting freedom campers is about $380m and there is much debate about whether they are scrooges or spenders. 

Emma Hudson, marketing director for STA Travel Global UK, has seen a big growth in demand for campervans from young travellers heading here, and says they spend about $150 a day on food, drink and activities. 

That means a German visitor, who stays 68 days on average, will contribute $10,000 to our economy.  

What's more, Hudson says that later in life one in five return to destinations they visited in their youth.

"It's a trip down memory lane, showing their families where they went during a very formative time in their lives."

CamperMate and Geozone apps attract 37,000 users a day in peak season and founder Adam Hutchinson says it's important to recognise the value of freedom campers, who are not all noodle munchers living on the smell of an oily rag.

There are fears that the backlash against freedom camping will endanger a quintessential Kiwi tradition and deter ...
Pippa de Court

There are fears that the backlash against freedom camping will endanger a quintessential Kiwi tradition and deter overseas visitors.

By anonymously tracking 186 app users and matching their movements with credit card transactions, he found they each spent about $2000 over a three week period, and the real surprise was the 20 per cent they spent on retail items such as clothing and camping gear.

Hutchinson says a survey of app users showed 40 per cent chose New Zealand specifically because they could freedom camp, and tighter restrictions might cost us a valuable chunk of our visitor market. 

Camping Act angst

The Freedom Camping Act was passed in 2011 to overcome an accommodation shortage during the Rugby World Cup and it was left up to individual local authorities to introduce restrictions.

This comment under a recent Stuff story about freedom camping vividly describes some of the consequences. 

"The complete mess the dirty sods have made of Lake Poaka behind Twizel is appalling. No respect whatsoever. Lighting fires to burn rubbish, including glass bottles. Number twos littered through the trees and bushes. Washing dishes with dishwasher liquid in the once brilliant fishing lake."

So-called "vanpackers" touring in old vehicles without any toilet facilities cop a lot of the blame, and anecdotally young Europeans coming here to enjoy our clean green outdoors are among the worst offenders. 

Gaskell worries that the "nasty little shitters" that make the mess will jeopardise it for everyone. 

"It's a privilege to be able to freedom camp and if you abuse it, someone will take it away."

Some local authorities have responded by restricting freedom camping to self-contained vehicles.

But enforcement is expensive, stickers denoting certified self-contained vehicles have been forged, and many travellers quit the country without paying fines for illegal camping.

The NZMCA has 400 volunteers who carry out certification inspections for its members, but any registered plumber can do it too.

The association was concerned that porta-potties stashed in the back of vans, with no intention of ever being used, were passing the certified self-contained standard set by Standards New Zealand and successfully sought to get it tightened.  

Now, as well as having the capacity to store up to three days' water and waste, self-contained vehicles must have a toilet that can be used inside when the bed is made up. 

David Hammond does consultancy work for councils grappling with freedom camping issues and thinks the standard should be even tougher.

He is helping councils tweak their by-laws so the definition of self contained includes a fully plumbed toilet. 

"No adult is going to use a porta-potty, let's be realistic, it's gross.

"The only reason they haven't gone the whole hog and said you have to have a plumbed in toilet is that some of the older NZMCA vehicles probably don't lend themselves to that sort of design."

Combating the filthy few

Sharron​ King says councils need to step up and provide more toilets, dump stations and rubbish bins.

Government tourism infrastructure funding is starting to address that with $5.2m in grants made this week to help build or upgrade 36 toilet blocks. 

Buller mayor Garry Howard says the hodge podge of differing rules on freedom camping is confusing and West Coast local authorities are attempting to align their bylaws, something the rest of the country should emulate.

"How does a tourist know when they've crossed the border between the Buller, Grey and Westland districts?"

Queenstown mayor Jim Boult​ wants a rewrite of the legislation so there is consistency across the country.

"This camping creep into our recreational areas has come far enough - it's time to take our spaces back."

Minister of Tourism Paula Bennett agrees that sticking with the status quo is not an option and changing the Act is a possibility.

However, she is acutely conscious that freedom camping in the great outdoors is also a cherished Kiwi tradition.

"It cannot continue the way it is …but we need a New Zealand-wide conversation about what the options are, what the consequences are, and just go into that with our eyes open.


 - Stuff


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