The coronavirus pandemic halted much of the travel industry in late March, an industry that helps fuel Durango’s economy. Flights were grounded, hotel rooms were left vacant and people were told to stay home.
Not even RV parks were spared.
Westerly RV Park north of Durango was totally booked in March, but when the pandemic swept across the nation, it lost most of its business.
“That was devastating,” said Eugenie Schlittgen, co-owner of the park.
But as a better understanding of the virus came into focus, people itching to leave the house after months of isolation realized traveling in a recreational vehicle could be a “great solution to having a vacation during the pandemic,” Schlittgen said.
Health officials have said flying with strangers is a greater threat than driving with members of your own household. Hotels are also seen as potential spreaders of COVID-19. As a result, the pandemic has prompted millions of Americans to plan RV vacations this year, according to the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association.
As of this month, Schlittgen was turning people away because her park off of U.S. Highway 550, near Hermosa, was completely full. About 10% to 15% of those reserving spaces are not normally RV travelers, said Schlittgen’s husband and co-owner of the park, Geof Schlittgen.
New Mexico’s travel restrictions have also kept many travelers from crossing the state line, where they will have to self-isolate for 14 days. Looking for a place to stay, many of them end up staying in Durango, Schlittgen said.
But mask ordinances have also had an impact on the RV tourism industry. Schlittgen said many travelers called to cancel reservations in June because they didn’t want to wear a mask on vacation.
“It’s been so volatile,” Geof Schlittgen said of the RV travel industry, which has had many ups and downs since March. “But there has been a definite uptick in the purchase of RVs,” he said, most likely because there is less face-to-face interaction with other people by traveling in such a vehicle.
Schlittgen said social distancing is easy at an RV park because there is “plenty of space between each site.”
And travelers don’t have to risk staying in a hotel room where they’re not sure how clean it is, she said. Now, calls are coming in for reservations as far out as September, Schlittgen said.
Public health officials across the country say COVID-19 is less contagious outside, because the air disperses respiratory droplets faster than in an indoor setting. RVs can make travel seem safer by providing a user-controlled environment for cooking, sleeping and using the restroom while visiting attractions like Colorado’s many national parks.
Park owners have had to make some adjustments, such as scheduling appointments for the laundry room.
“Because we’re so small and spacious, we haven’t had to do major things,” Schlittgen said.
Marti Leighton with Durango RV Park also experienced an initial period of cancellations in March and April. Now, she has a number of guests who are first-time campers.
“People are making spur-of-the-moment plans and traveling here from across the U.S.,” because they don’t have to go back to work or can work remotely because of COVID-19, Leighton said.
Still, her RV park is only 50% full. A normal July for the Durango RV Park sees 68 vehicles in the parking lot, but this year there are only 36 to 46, Leighton said.
“We’re taking a big financial hit,” she said. Seniors are also hesitant to travel because of the virus, she said.
Cabins and lodgingsDurango RV Park is taking reservations for only “self-contained units” like RVs, not its cabins or lodges, because offering those spaces during COVID-19 would be too risky, Leighton said.
Even though the park would be full if she opened those spaces for rent, Leighton would rather have restrictions in place to prevent possible spread of the virus, she said.
Her son is a 33-year-old physician at a metropolitan hospital in Virginia, working in the intensive care unit with COVID-19 patients. His accounts of young people dying have influenced Leighton to be especially careful about the disease. She closed the playground and has also made the laundry room by appointment only.
But some changes she made have been a benefit. The pool is now by reservation time only, too, so families can get the entire pool to themselves. Leighton also has more time to be on the campground because she is not spending her time cleaning cabins and bathhouses, which are closed.
Still, Leighton said there should be a more coordinated approach across the industry to ensure RV parks remain a safe place to travel.
“Things should be more obvious,” she said.
Doug Cook, general manager of Alpen Rose RV Park just north of Durango, said many people canceled their reservations when major events like graduations, weddings and sporting events were canceled because of COVID-19.
But starting with Independence Day weekend, Alpen Rose RV Park has been completely booked.
“There are quite a few more families with children than we normally get,” Cook said.
RV sales are also booming across the country, Cook said, particularly for families.
“July is a record for us,” Cook said.
There is a sense of safety in an RV during the pandemic, Cook said, because it is a form of self-isolation.
“It’s also a fun way for families to travel that saves costs,” he said.