With more and more people hitting the road in RVs and campers, there’s been an increase in demand for campsites. And while this has sometimes been a headache for travelers, some towns around the country see the new demand as an opportunity. The City of Morro Bay, California noticed an increased camping demand from visitors and decided the best way to move forward was to capitalize on it.
“Really, it was a financially driven thing to see if it would be a decent revenue source for us and to provide more access,” said Eric Endersby, the Harbor Director for Morro Bay. “Any city has two missions; one is really public safety and utilities, and then public access. So, especially for a beach town like this, one of our major missions is public access, so we thought what a great opportunity to get more RVers in town.”
Endersby says in the last decade, the number of people visiting the harbor town just north of San Luis Obispo has been steadily increasing. That includes more RVers looking for a place to camp to enjoy the beach and the views of the town’s namesake, Morro Rock, an ancient volcano that sits on the town’s edge. Morro Bay’s location on California’s coast provides great opportunities for outdoor enthusiasts, including surfers, anglers, and even mountain biking. The town has been a popular destination for years, but the number of visitors skyrocketed last year with the start of the pandemic and blew up following the California wildfires.
“I think the trend was already getting larger, but then I think everyone, at least in California, either started going to the beaches or the mountains, but then all the mountains caught on fire, so they started going to the beaches,” said Endersby. “The numbers we were seeing, it was just crazy.”
The additional tourism brought a new strain to Endersby’s Harbor Department, which oversees water rescues and harbor patrol. With more people visiting the coast, the department saw an uptick in issues requiring their attention, and eventually, it began to cost the city more. Combining that problem with the demand for access, Morro Bay’s City Council looked for opportunities to make changes and increase revenue. In the spring of 2020, they approved the pilot program for an initial 19 RV campsites at three different spots around the city.
The program launched quietly on the city’s website last April. It hit snags with rolling closures due to COVID-19, so Morro Bay leaders voted to extend it through September of 2021 to allow for a full year of the pilot before deciding whether or not to keep it in place. However, since the launch, the city has approved an increase in spots and campsites based on how popular the program is. They also plan to increase visibility about the spots to get more visitors.
When launching their own program, Morro Bay looked at a similar program in the nearby town of Port San Luis. Port San Luis’s program launched a few years ago and is a very similar setup for RVers; it has been successful enough to still be in place today.
Endersby says with two state parks nearby and a growing number of RV parks, campers definitely have their options. Still, he says the city was mindful and continues to be careful not to over-compete with the private sector. But at the same time, he also knows the city sites can provide something others cannot.
“The main thing we provide is a waterfront experience, you’re either on the beachfront or the bay, and you can’t really get that elsewhere,” said Endersby.
So far, the spots are fairly simple, adorned only with an outdoor picnic table. While they plan to add amenities and build out the sites with walls and plants, they’re cautious about how much money they spend as they wait for city leaders to decide whether or not to keep the program. Some residents back the initiative and its intent to raise money, but others are unhappy with how public the spots are and prefer not to add additional guests.
Endersby says that because the sites are located in popular areas of town, in order for the camping spots to have a chance of becoming permanent offerings, campers will need to take some extra care.
“Minimizing the negative impacts and really kind of coaching and talking to our campers and making sure they’re not up late at night and making a lot of noise, dogs off-leash, you know typical campground kind of stuff,” said Endersby. “So we talk a fair amount about that to be quiet and respectful. So far, we’ve been okay.”
The plan is to continue to expand with a few more sites around town, but there eventually will be a cap. Morro Bay’s Harbor Department is fairly small, and there’s only so much visitation they can handle. It will be up to Morro Bay’s City Council’s vote in September to decide whether or not the program will keep moving forward.
Campers who are interested in staying need to make a reservation through the city’s website. The Morro Creek and Maritime Museum sites are $65 a night, while Coleman Park sites are $75 a night. For a full list of rules and regulations, including the type of camping setup allowed at each site, visit the City of Morro Bay’s website.