Coronavirus: Vermont campgrounds struggle as ongoing restrictions limit summer tourism

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Joanne Dunn, owner of Green Mountain Family Campground in Bristol, has spent the last few months cancelling events, losing busy holiday bookings and providing refunds for reservations from out-of-state visitors.

Coronavirus-related restrictions in Vermont that prohibit non-Vermont campers and limit capacity at campgrounds are hitting campgrounds hard in their busiest season. 

Lodging operations like campgrounds were allowed to re-open May 22, but only to Vermonters and those who had completed a 14-day in-state quarantine, and only at 25% capacity.

lifting of some restrictions on June 8 allows campgrounds to book at 50% capacity, but for many, the damage has already been done.

Campground owners 

Jaquelyn Rieke, who runs Onion River Campground in Plainfield, said that normally those who have made reservations can only transfer dates, not receive refunds. Because of the Covid pandemic, they’re allowing refunded cancellations.

Right now, Rieke said, they’re doing about a third of the business they usually do. Onion River is taking its own especially strict precautions, and is not allowing any tent camping at the moment.

Dunn and her husband do all of the work at their Green Mountain Family Campground themselves, and because they have no employees, they don’t qualify for a forgiven small business debt relief loan. 

Green Mountain Family Campground only has 48 sites and typically takes 75% of their bookings from out-of-state visitors, making the state’s restrictions a particular burden on their business. Dunn said she’s offering refunds or transferring reservation dates to everybody who had booked in advance.

Dunn also noted the symbiotic relationship between campgrounds and attractions: restaurants and recreational sites that typically draw tourists to lodge at campgrounds are closed or have limited capacity or hours this summer, discouraging any tourism to the area. 

“How are we going to bounce back from this?” she said.

The economic impact

Vermont is home to about 50 private campgrounds, and 40 state parks that allow camping, according to Amy Spear, vice president of tourism for the Vermont Chamber of Commerce. 

Summer is the busiest time for tourism in Vermont: 5 million of the state’s 13 million annual out-of-state tourists come during the summer months.

State campgrounds were not open to any campers from May 13 through June 25. 

Campgrounds account for $10 million of state revenue in a given year, but they also bring tourists to other attractions, like state parks and restaurants. According to a state Tourism Benchmark Study, campgrounds contribute $5 million each to the restaurant, grocery and gas industries, $3 million to retail and $10 million to the recreation and entertainment industry. 

“While the long-term effects of restricted travel are not know yet, Vermont businesses in the tourism sector are hurting,” Spear said. She noted that the June 8 changes to hospitality restrictions are a “small but desperately needed step forward” for the Vermont tourism industry. 

‘A great summer’

Because of those changes, things are looking up for the first time in a while for Mary Lunderville, who runs the Moose River Campground in Saint Johnsbury. But she’s been operating at 1% of the business she usually does this time of year. Over Memorial Day weekend, Lunderville only had two campers. During the week, she often has none.

Last May, Moose River had 79 campers. This year they had 12. 

Lunderville was looking forward to this summer, which she projected to be the most successful yet. Then the virus reached the US, restrictions went into place, and Moose River lost most of their summer business. Now, they’re struggling to make ends meet.

“It looked like it was going to be a booming year, a great summer,” Lunderville said. “I’ve talked with other campground owners, and we’re all asking the same thing: How are we going to pay our bills?”

Contact Riley Board at rboard@freepressmedia.com. 

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