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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sue Lani Madsen: Camping connections

Sue Lani Madsen (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Sue Lani Madsen (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Sue Lani Madsen The Spokesman-Review

Hear “ecotourism” and you might picture a treehouse in Thailand or an unspoiled forest in Costa Rica. Probably not pitching a tent next to an old farmhouse on the Palouse. But that’s one of many options available through a new camping website.

For the land-sharing app called Hipcamp, ecotourism means getting more people outdoors, connecting people across cultures and reconnecting with the land. The company was founded four years ago in California by a frustrated camper faced with crowded public campgrounds and limited options to reserve space.

In Washington state, the number of public campsites available has remained steady while the population has grown by over 35 percent since 2000. “For the calendar year 2017, our overnight stay totals for all parks was 2.2 million,” said Toni Droscher, communications manager with Washington State Parks. That number includes cabins and other roofed rentals, in addition to campsites.

According to Eoin McMillan, spokesman for Hipcamp, “It’s difficult to increase public parks to accommodate a growing population, but possible to readily increase access to private lands.”

Some of those private lands were already devoted to providing an outdoor experience, like the Pacific Rim Institute on Whidbey Island. PRI’s Robert Pelant said the income is secondary to their mission to educate guests and preserve “175 acres of very rare prairie and savanna – Washington’s most endangered ecosystems.”

Most are working landscapes in rural communities. McMillan said one of the unexpected benefits of Hipcamp has been opportunities to connect people across the rural-urban divide. Ranchers enjoy sharing their stewardship of the land. Campers on a working farm can experience what “living like a local” means and how life looks different from the vantage of a low-density community.

One of those differences is dark skies. Matt and Melissa Blaine offer three primitive tent camping sites near an old farmhouse south of Spokane billed as “Palouse Stargazing.” They are working to restore the farm and farmhouse, and are using Hipcamp income to move the project along. “Biggest surprise was how far some people have driven to stay a night. Second surprise is that anyone wanted to stay at all, but some people are looking for that wide-open Palouse experience,” said Matt Blaine.

Camping fees are on par with those charged at state and national parks. For Hipcamp hosts, it adds value to their working landscapes. The additional income can mean the difference between preserving the family farm and selling out to development.

Economic benefits accrue to more than just the landowners. The 2018 Washington State Tourism Marketing Plan says tourism is Washington’s fourth largest industry, bringing in anywhere from $2.50 to $20 in local spending for every $1 of tourism marketing. Research found that “awareness of specific regions falls drastically outside Metro Seattle” but that “top reasons to visit include natural beauty, accessibility of nature, and diversity of landscapes” along with vibrant local food and beverage offerings across the state. More ways to connect helps spread the wealth and meet visitors’ goals for enjoying natural landscapes.

For travelers on a time budget used to tapping an app for that, access to reservations on private lands is a convenient way get out of the metro bubble on a schedule. Ecotourism is already promoted as an economic development tool for rural communities. McMillan said Hipcamp’s “main tweak is to provide a platform to allow supply and demand to connect.”

Hipcamp land-sharing accommodations are all about camping. Hosts offer sites ranging from a primitive cabin or a yurt for campers without their own gear to primitive sites for pitching a tent. All provide access to at least some kind of sanitation and most provide access to drinking water. A variety of filters on the website allows campers to tailor their experience.

The major difference between private lands and public lands camping is the cultural connection. Ecotourism emphasizes the importance of sensitivity to local cultures and sustainable benefits to local communities. Tourism can never replace year-round residents as a critical mass of customers to maintain a vital commercial base. But building a coalition of urban ecotourists and rural Washingtonians can help bridge the cultural divide when state policy debates get heated.

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