When it comes to vacations, Americans have always loved the great outdoors. Fishing, camping and just driving around are great American pastimes.

But now, welcome to the early stages of the era of “glamping” — glamorous camping.  It’s a visit to the outdoors, but updated and upscale. While it’s just starting to take off, it’s likely to grow significantly based on emerging travel and vacation trends, according to The Wall Street Journal.

While glamping is sometimes caricatured as over-the-top luxury (think butlers with bug spray), its real potential is in making “roughing it” a little less rough but still affordable. At the moment, the very high-end dude ranches are still conspicuous consumption. But camping with trimmings — tents with heaters, eco-outhouses, showers hidden around the corner — has tremendous appeal. It’s outdoorsy, but with a good mix of the comforts of an active resort.  The business people who provide these experiences get to skip building a big hotel, and put up “mobile rooms” instead. Meanwhile, glampers get a feeling of being close to nature, with a full complement of activities like hiking, fly-fishing and kayaking.

There has been a spate of articles recently about the green shoots of glamping, even proposing standards for the facilities. Having a reasonably priced vacation that is certified as ecologically sound — one that honors nature without disturbing it — could gain real traction. 


Theodore Roosevelt on camping trip to Yellowstone National Park in 1903.

Theodore Roosevelt on camping trip to Yellowstone National Park in 1903.

Of course, the glamour of the outdoors has started at the top, with First Glamper. Teddy Roosevelt’s expeditions seared the public’s imagination.  Our more modern presidents have had Western ranches and Maine seaside compounds.  Sure, some have preferred Martha’s Vineyard, but they all now have Camp David at their disposal — which is nothing but glamping taken to the extreme, with its luxury “cabins” and even a Secret Service-run gift shop.

When asked their choice of vacations, most Americans say they prefer the outdoors, and they have turned recreational fishing into a $40 billion industry. With the cost of a European trip beyond the reach of many — even with the strengthened dollar — Americans are turning inward with so-called “staycations.” Then on top of the economic challenges, swine flu has discouraged vacations to less expensive and more crowded destinations, hitting Mexico the hardest. All told, the great American outdoors has never looked so good to U.S. travelers.

The statistics bear this out. 

Nationally, campground reservations in the first six months of 2009 rose 8% over last year. In fact, Yellowstone Park had a record number of visitors in July, with over 900,000, up from about 800,000 in July 2008. The sale of fishing licenses nationwide is up 7% this year.

rei_logoOutdoor equipment store REI reports sales of family tents are up by 20%. Ohio State Parks data from mid-July show camping has increased by over 15% from last year, and getaway rentals — ranging from platform tents to camper cabins — also are up by almost 5%.

Among Americans, European travel is down over 9%, and Asia and Mexico are down double-digits. South America has held steady, while African and Middle Eastern destinations are up, but off a low base of numbers of travelers. That leaves a lot of Americans who used to go overseas for their vacations now looking to stay right here.


Tent at Paws Up facility in Montana

Tent at Paws Up facility in Montana

So far, most glamping establishments, such as Clayoquot Wilderness Resort in Canada and Paws Up in Montana, have been geared toward a very upscale clientele.  But the big hospitality chains are missing out on an opportunity to go mass market. Demand is growing for this kind of vacation.

Glamping sites have a lot of economic advantages over traditional hotels that could help build a successful business model. Undeveloped, isolated land is often available at a fairly low cost. No need to pour a foundation. Tents can be set up and moved around as needed. And hospitality expectations are low — with the exception of having to pull off a daily campfire and s’mores for dessert.

Liability for outdoors activities is an issue; glamping resorts now spend a lot of time getting disclaimers from guests before virtually every activity. But it is always possible — as with skiing — to have a black-diamond grading system so people can match their programs to their capabilities.

A company like Embassy Suites, which caters to family crowds, would be an ideal candidate to extend glamping to the middle class. But all of the major chains could get involved. A Ritz Carlton or Four Seasons glamping site could be the more upscale version — picture rappelling into a hot tub — but still short of over-the-top. And ski resorts that are looking for a better summer season could convert to glamping.

The microtrend of glamping is just in its infancy, but it brings together the environmental movement with the American outdoors spirit at a time people are looking to vacation closer to home. And that spells a trend looking for a good promoter to move it to the fast track.