Wal-Mart has become one of the nation’s largest campground operators. Every night thousands of recreational vehicles (RVs) set-up camp in Wal-Mart parking lots. The practice, which first began in the late 1980s, has grown rapidly in recent years. In places like Durango, Colorado and Anchorage, Alaska, Wal-Mart parking lots are jammed full of RVs night after night.
Parking overnight at Wal-Mart is free, so campers save the $20 to $35 fee charged by traditional campgrounds. Although the company says it does not promote the practice, all of its stores sell a modified Rand McNally road atlas that shows the location of the chain’s 2,600 U.S. outlets. Store employees have been known to provide wake-up calls for RV’ers, directing them to the store’s cafe for breakfast. Wal-Mart has also expanded its stock of camping products and featured RVs more prominently in its advertisements.
According to store managers, campers are an excellent source of revenue, often purchasing all of their supplies at Wal-Mart.
“Wal-Mart is acting like Wal-Mart acts when it goes into any small town,” says David Gorin, president of the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds. “They just eat up the business, and they are doing it to us like they have done to other folks.” He estimates that parking lots are siphoning off as much as 10 percent of the business.
Gorin and others in the industry believe that retail stores that allow overnight camping should be required to follow the same regulations governing traditional campgrounds. These rules include purchasing a state license to operate; complying with the state health code on such things as the number of restrooms and the drinking water supply; and undergoing regular inspections.
Traditional campgrounds also collect sales and lodging taxes, an important source of revenue in many communities. Park County, Wyoming, which encompasses the town of Cody and part of Yellowstone National Park, collects $1 million in lodging taxes annually, an amount officials fear will diminish with the growing popularity of the Cody Wal-Mart parking lot.
“We understand why it’s appealing to RV’ers,” says Gorin. It’s one thing when people pull over late at night for a quick stay, he notes. But it’s another issue when people are spending days at a time in a Wal-Mart parking lot or making all of their stops at the company’s outlets, practices which industry publications suggest are increasingly prevalent.
Some states and communities have attempted to regulate or ban overnight camping in parking lots, only to encounter boycott threats from well-organized RV’ers. In 1999, the Illinois Department of Health informed Wal-Mart store managers that they would have to purchase campground licenses, but quickly dropped the policy after a barrage of complaints.
A few communities have stuck to their guns. Kissimmee, Florida adopted an ordinance last year banning all overnight camping at retail stores. An earlier ordinance had allowed up to nine RVs to stay no more than one night in the Wal-Mart lot, but the law was routinely violated. Officials often found twice as many RVs in the lot, with stays averaging three to six nights. Del Norte County, California and Flagstaff, Arizona also prohibit overnight camping in store lots.