GET PACKING: Vanpackers being moved on by Byron Shire Council rangers.
GET PACKING: Vanpackers being moved on by Byron Shire Council rangers. Christian Morrow

Time to embrace free campers, researchers say

SUMMER is looming so get set for an influx of vanpackers taking up residence in the streets and parks of Byron Shire.

But should we learn to love and regulate these so-called free campers, and not just feel like we want to run them out of town?

New doctoral research from Southern Cross University suggests that freedom camping, long seen as a scourge on the streets of Byron Bay, may be here to stay, and we may as well get used to it and regulators need to catch up with the phenomenon.

The research from Dr Rod Caldicott in the School of Business and Tourism looks set to shake up camping reforms across the country and the globe.

United States tourism bodies and Chinese policymakers have already contacted Dr Caldicott for advice in establishing their own guidelines around free camping.

"Campers have long been using streets to park their vans, much to the anguish of local residents, but they are simply following in their grandparents' footsteps," Dr Caldicott said.

"People were free-camping in their Kombis in Byron in the 50s and 60s, so it's not a new behaviour."

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.

Byron Bay is a favourite destination for these free campers often travelling in Wicked Vans and other vehicles with no toilet or washing facilities.

Locals often despair at the site of vanpackers pulled up in local parks and residential areas, turning them into unofficial camping grounds complete with litter and human waste left behind when they move on to their next free camping site.

Dr Caldicott 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.

The researcher grew up in a family that ran caravan parks and believes a town like Byron Bay could, if it chose, regulate, facilitate and perhaps even profit from the various types of free camping already happening.

"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. In other words, policy catching up with practice," he said.

"The idea of enforcement with nowhere for campers to go is not a solution."