The politics of freedom camping: new research highlights policy failures

Published 27 September 2017
Rod Caldicott with camper van Dr Rod Caldicott.

Campers have long been using streets to park their vans, much to the anguish of local residents – but it seems they are simply following in their grandparents’ footsteps. And as the popularity of ‘freedom camping’ ramps up across Australia, new research from Southern Cross University shows policy regulators are failing to catch up with current practice.

Doctoral research from Dr Rod Caldicott in the School of Business and Tourism is set to shake up camping reforms across the country and the globe, with United States tourism bodies and Chinese policymakers already in contact to establish their own guidelines around the phenomenon.

Dr Caldicott describes freedom camping as a practice where travellers deliberately occupy a recreational vehicle as a mode of accommodation in an open space not bound by commercial norms and caravan park-based regulations.

He said unless signed otherwise, freedom camping is legal, though it remains the ‘elephant in the room’ for many communities and needs to be properly regulated.

“Clearly there is a disjunction in tourism policy. National television commercials show campervan tourism as clean, cheap, easy and espousing freedom. But then, when visitors bring their campervans to freedom places like Bondi, Byron and Cairns, the local government is putting them in wheel clamps,” Dr Caldicott said.

“I’m certainly not advocating for wholesale free or no-cost camping, but I think people have a right to choose where and how they spend their time and money. Freedom camping can be better facilitated by putting clear and transferable boundaries on where and for how long it can happen.”

The findings of his PhD research espouse market failure in the supply of freedom camping; demonstrate a disjunction between tourism policy in different states; show how community intervention is closing gaps in freedom camping policy and practice; and finally, highlight the issue that there is no clear emergence of planning approaches and policy models for tourism, recreation and leisure studies.

“In the early 1900s when there was no such thing as a caravan park, the logical thing when taking a journey was ‘motor-camping’ along the road. Caravan parks popped up in the thirties and forties, and states began regulating camping, but not everyone wanted to be corralled into miniature suburbs,” said Dr Caldicott, whose idea for the research was conceived in a rooftop tent by the road.

“Nowadays, states and councils across the country have many different rules and often respond reactively. What is needed is a national integrated review, at a policy level, where all states and industry bodies work together to create national guidelines with common goals.

“The goal of my research is to bring new opportunity to the private and public sector; to marry viable commercial business with sustainable camping experiences for the growing market of freedom campers. That is – policy catching up with practice.”

Dr Caldicott said presenting a taxonomy of caravanning allowed the multiple stakeholders, including the campers themselves, local government regulators and commercial caravan park operators, to recognise their differences yet sit in the policymaking room where ideological difference is respected and supply innovation can flourish.

His research critically analysed the public policy process concerning freedom camping in four Australian local government communities including Byron Bay and Lightning Ridge in NSW, and Boonah and Birdsville in Queensland as case studies. His grounded multi-methods research was used to critique the perspectives of 41 local, state, national and international-level informants against discipline specific literature.

Media contact: Sharlene King, media officer 02 6620 3508 or 0429 661 349