When the economy gets tough, vacationing Americans apparently tighten the belts and head for the great outdoors.

That’s one take on new figures showing that campgrounds and RV park revenues this year largely kept pace with 2008, according to the Wisconsin State Journal and Capital Times.

The National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC) reports that many of the largest campgrounds had increased visitors.

For example, Kampgrounds of America Inc. (KOA), the nation’s largest campground chain with 430 locations in the U.S. and Canada, had 1.1% more visitors in 2008 while revenues were up 5.6%.

And Leisure Systems Inc. — which franchises roughly 70 Jellystone Park resorts, including one in Wisconsin Dells — is reporting an overall 5% jump in revenues, although occupancies fell slightly.

“Private parks have performed well in this economy,” said Linda Profaizer, president ARVC, which represents commercially owned parks nationwide.
Brent Gasser, spokesman for Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park Camp Resort and Water Playground in Wisconsin Dells, is reporting close to a 10% increase in visitors this year.

But overall, Jellystone park revenues were down 7% as many park guests downsized to the least costly campsites.

“I’ve been doing this 40 years, and this is the first time I can remember visits were up but revenues were down,’ said Gasser.

Gasser said visitors this summer eschewed more expensive lodging, with tent camping more popular than ever. He noted that almost 50% of those renting campsites were going without electric hookups.

Longtime Dells area promoter Tom Diehl is reporting similar results for 2009, with the number of visitors up from last year but overall sales down.

“I think a lot of people were shopping around,” said Diehl, owner of the Tommy Bartlett Show, who briefed state tourism officials this week.

Diehl said restaurant owners in particular were noticing tourists spending less. He said restaurants were busy but diners were choosing less expensive menu items.

On the other hand, retail shoppers were not buying much at all, Diehl said.

“Those are the kind of decisions you can postpone,” he said.

The Dells area was already hurting from the accidental draining of Lake Delton last summer, which basically wiped out the Tommy Bartlett Show for all of 2008 and led to cancellations at the small resorts along the lakeshore. The manmade lake was eventually repaired and refilled with water for this season.

Diehl said revenues for his water ski show this summer were down about 10% from the $3 million in 2007 but much improved over last year.

Last year, Diehl said his business grossed only $300,000.

“The Dells has a lot to be thankful for, but honestly, we’ve been on a 10-year suffer here,” he said.