Covid is out to sabotage the classic Kiwi holiday, with its tents, cabins, side-by-side caravans, evening beers around the barbecue, and young and old using shared kitchen and toileting facilities.
Epidemiologists warn if we want to stay safe, then our Christmas holidays will have to look different this summer, with masks, vaccinations and social distancing.
But if you’re asking yourself whether to proceed with your camping holiday, with unvaccinated under-12s running around, the specialists’ answer is, “yes … within limits”.
The traffic light system came into force across New Zealand on Friday, to differing responses.
Holiday parks have plenty going for them when it comes to a safe holiday, epidemiologists say. There’s plenty of fresh air, so if you’re armed with a mask and practice social distancing, it’s all go.
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* What vaccine requirements will mean for family travel this summer
You’ve got more chance of being caught in a rip, burnt by the barbie, or eating dodgy seafood than catching Covid, provided you spend as little time mingling as possible.
Sing-alongs around the bonfire, or at New Year’s celebrations are best avoided; nothing sprays a virus like a singing, shouting, snuggling Covid carrier. Omicron, a new variant, has made the picture even more complex, though it is yet to arrive in New Zealand.
University of Sydney epidemiologist Professor Alexandra Martiniuk offers guidelines on how to best stay safe while camping. Even if vaccinated, you can give and receive Covid, she says.
“If I painted a picture, this is what I would consider a safe picture,” she says. “Travel there with your family in your own family vehicle, with all adults or those 12-plus double vaccinated two weeks ago, at least.
“At the campground you have enough physical distance between you and the campers next to you, so that would be at least a couple of people’s length, or longer. Much longer would be better.
“The ideal thing would be you’ve got your own toileting and shower facilities, that’s rare I know. Where you get the blurring is a lot of people go to these campgrounds because they like to socialise.
“If they’re all adults, and they’re all double vaccinated, that’s all great. If there are kids under 12, and they’re not vaccinated, they can carry Covid – they don’t get that sick, but you can get it from them.”
Sunshine and fresh air lower the prospect of transmission. Not so, a rainy day in a shared cabin or the dining facility. “That’s not a good scenario.”
“If you’ve got someone who wants to be as safe as they can be, don’t shout into their face, whether that’s singing, or talking.”
While toilets and showers have the most shares, a lot of them are fairly open, so they have good ventilation. No lingering, though.
“Don’t hang out and chitchat with all the girls, just get the job done and get back outside.”
Covid has already caused holiday parks many headaches, closing the borders to overseas guests – around 35 per cent of their usual clientele.
On the plus side, last January a record 611,000 New Zealanders – about one person in eight – stayed at a holiday park.
Now they are pondering whether staff must be vaccinated; whether customers need to be vaccinated; how to manage multi-generation holidaymakers, all with different susceptibility to the virus.
Most holiday parks – around 70 per cent so far – are making vaccinations mandatory, to protect staff and customers. That number is likely to climb.
“Our parks are spending a lot of time going through this process, we want people to have a safe holiday,” Holiday Parks New Zealand chief executive Fergus Brown says.
Parks do not come under hospitality-related requirements for vaccines to be mandatory. It is up to each – whether privately owned, or a public facility – to set their own rules.
Take care of the locals
Outdoor areas at holiday parks “should be fairly low risk”, University of Canterbury modeller Professor Michael Plank says, though intending holidaymakers should consider the risk to local communities.
“Consider holidaying somewhere a bit closer to home if possible. It’s possible an outbreak could start amongst tourists at a campground and then spread to locals. Remote areas often don’t have good access to healthcare,” he says.
While over-65s are more at risk from Covid, if they are fully vaccinated and spend most of their time outdoors or in their own van or tent the risk was low, in his view.
“If you’re in an area like a shared kitchen or lounge, try and open the windows so there is some ventilation and wear a mask where possible.”
Such is the need for speed, they are charging ahead with their own safety plans ahead of the government’s intended announcement in December.
Most holiday parks are headed towards making vaccinations mandatory, chief executive Brown says.
“Most have determined the (staffing) roles within the parks to be high risk, and so those have decided if staff require vaccinations, then also they will ask for vaccination passes, from those 12 up,” he says.
“If you had asked me a week ago I would have said 60 per cent of our parks will require the vaccination pass, now it’s higher – probably closer to 70 per cent and moving.
“We are starting to say, if you’re not vaccinated don’t travel – you’re not going to have a good time. It can be difficult going to restaurants, and you won’t be able to stay in some places because there will be vaccination passes.”
Tough times for holiday parks
The holiday park industry is craving the return of overseas tourists. Parks in tourist-specific areas such as the Waitomo Caves, or Franz Josef in Westland, have suffered the most from closed borders.
“Normally we do 8.5 million guest nights a year. Of those, 65 per cent are domestic and the rest international – it’s very hard to make up that other 35 per cent,” Brown says.
Top 10 Holiday Parks Group chief executive David Ovendale oversees 49 parks nationwide, ranging from accommodating as many as 3500, down to facilities about a 10th that size.
Each will do its own risk assessment, he says. It will be impossible to please everyone.
“We’re trying to do the best thing for the majority of the people that we can,” Ovendale says.
“We have to aim to keep people safe including our customers, our staff, our children and ourselves. It’s not necessarily a pretty journey, and it’s not an easy journey.”
Top 10 holiday parks are individually operated under a range of ownership models, so approaches to Covid control will vary.
There could be longer than usual waits at reception, as vaccination statuses are checked, Ovendale warns.
“Having someone at reception with a scanning device on their phone to check vaccination status is going to add to the complexity of the process, people need to be understanding and be patient, to be tolerant,” he says.
“When it’s crowded it is going to be difficult, because we have shared bathrooms, shared barbecues, shared facilities, we have jumping pillows, you name it.
“At this time of the year we are strongly focussing on the families, so you’ve got under 12s not able to be vaccinated.
“You try telling a 12 year-old to social distance – it is just not realistic, and you have multigenerational families, that’s very common these days, where some party members may have age related additional risks.”
For all the headaches, holiday parks are keen to get underway, after the stress of the past 18 months, when Covid killed off international tourism.
“Lots of people leap to the assumption that we rely on domestic travellers, when some of our properties had up to 85 per cent international customers pre Covid.
“We’ve managed to backfill our numbers to some extent with Kiwis who can’t go anywhere else. It has been very challenging. BBQ Life has been harder than last year for parks. It’s definitely wearing a bit thin, there is stress on a daily basis.”
Council-owned: Councils are taking the lead from government on the rules around managing Covid-19. It is understood the ever-popular Beachside Holiday Park at Mount Maunganui, owned by Tauranga City Council, was likely to adopt a vaccination mandate.
Department of Conservation: DOC says it is working through the protection framework and will let people know as soon as possible how they can enjoy its facilities this summer.