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Drive Life : September 10th 2010
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Highways and byways . . . the ever-popular road trip contributes to a healthy caravan and camping industry. Twenty years ago the thought of swapping the car for a plane to take the kids on holiday was crazy for most families. Airline travel was a luxury for the rich, especially for domestic holidays, and it was standard practice for mum and dad to pack up the car and head off to the beach or the country. But a decade ago, Richard Branson's Virgin brand entered the Australian airline market and kicked-off a price war in the skies. Virgin Blue, along with Qantas's low-cost carrier Jetstar and newcomer Tiger Airways, has made flying a competitive alternative to driving long distances. At the same time, petrol prices have risen sharply, meaning in some cases buying a plane ticket can be cheaper than driving. Add to those facts the increased police presence on popular holiday routes, as well the threat of double demerit points, and flying looks a lot more appealing. Figures from Tourism Research Australia, part of the Department for Energy, Resources and Tourism, confirm this; driving holidays have fallen in number while flying trips are on the rise. In 1998, about 1 million families flew to their holiday destinations but in 2009, that had increased to more than 2.5 million. In contrast, more than 14 million families travelled by car for their holidays in 1998 but in 2009, that figure had fallen to 12.8 million. Ask those who travel on the roads regularly, however, and they say the driving holiday is as strong as ever. Max Elsley is a seasoned caravan traveller and his experience tells him cheap flights haven't had an impact. ''Everywhere you go there are certainly more people in vehicles and caravans,'' Elsley says. ''I don't think there's any particular spot [that is more popular than any other]. Everywhere you travel is getting more populated.'' Retired couples, the famous grey nomads, have always supported driving holidays with their tours around Australia. According to the chief executive of the Caravan and Camping Association of NSW, Barry Baillie, the arrival of cheap flights hasn't hurt the road trip. ''It's been the opposite,'' Baillie says. ''Our industry has been one of the sectors that has continued to grow despite the general flattening of domestic tourism. We've continued to grow at about 10 per cent for the past 10 to 12 years. That's both in product sales -- caravans, motorhomes and campers -- and occupancy [in parks and cabins]. ''During the economic downturn, for example, 18 months to two years ago our caravan park occupancies went up by 10 per cent. Despite the competitive airfares, people at that time were choosing to holiday at home and return to family values. ''We've seen a real return, not only to caravans, but also people returning to family tents, a real trend towards that again.'' According to Baillie, the baby- boomer generation is joining the grey nomads on the roads. And it's not necessarily to save money. ''The baby boomers are the ones that are essentially getting into the market place,'' Baillie says. ''When you think about it, when people are buying a caravan these days they are probably paying between $45,000 and $65,000. They've probably already got a four-wheel-drive to tow it, so you are talking an investment of well over $100,000 to get themselves on the road. ''So it's no longer a cheap, lower socio-economic sector... it's a sector that's got money to spend, usually. They're choosing to get out on the road and discover the country.'' Baillie's view is backed up by Elsley, who says even the fluctuations in petrol prices don't have a significant impact on people opting for the car at holiday time. ''We all hesitate sometimes when petrol is $1.50 a litre but then you think, 'Well, how much extra is that really on my trip?' '' Elsley says. ''I think there's a lot more money around than we realise. I think there is a lot of lazy money. There must be for the amount of people that travel, and not in little vehicles, I see a lot of big caravans, 20- or 25-foot ones.'' As further support of his position Baillie says the Caravan and Camping Show at Rosehill Gardens racecourse earlier this year attracted a record 88,000 visitors. The association has also noted an increase in the number of families returning to camping. Baillie believes part of that can be attributed to the effects of the global financial crisis but a large part is down to improvements in camping equipment. ''With all the accessories you can get, camping is no longer getting down and dirty,'' he says. ''Camping in comfort is part of the attraction.'' So it seems that while the low-cost airlines have given Australian holidaymakers more choice, there is still plenty of affection for exploring our country by road.
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