Forbes mangles the RV park story

There was a time when, for all its excesses-and there were many!–Forbes magazine at least could be counted on for insightful reportage on American capitalism. Such coverage, to be sure, was steeped in unabashed boosterism, but it also looked beyond surface appearances and poked at deeper trends and developments. It was smart and literate, and it took its numbers seriously. Alas, no more.

Last week, Forbes ran a piece headlined, “Growing Demand Fuels Rising Tide of New, Expanded RV Parks,” which sounded promising only as far as the first sentence. There, the reader was informed that “this past winter saw construction of more than 50 new campgrounds and RV parks, offering more than 15,000 new RV sites”–a statement which on its face is absurd and should have been red-penciled by any copy editor with an ounce of mathematical smarts.

Although Forbes would have us believe that 300-site RV parks were being thrown up in a matter of months all across the U.S., none of the three examples it highlighted to give readers “a sense of the wholesale explosion of the RV park phenomenon” comes close to meeting that hyperbolic description. The largest, Gulf Shores RV Resort, will have an “anticipated” 175 sites this summer; the “brand-new” Red Coach Resort hasn’t started advertising its 47 sites, only 17 of which have hook-ups; and River Ridge Retreat, which opened last fall with 23 sites, added 31 more in March.

In other words, the “wholesale explosion of the RV park phenomenon” is more of a whimper than a bang, at least within the pages of Forbes magazine.

The story missed by “The Capitalist Tool,” as Forbes used to brand itself, is the extent to which capitalism run rampant is rapidly destroying the campground industry as we’ve known it. The same widening of the wealth gap that has splintered American society overall is seeping into the way we camp and use the outdoors, transforming a formerly egalitarian form of recreation into an economically stratified one anchored at its low end by people desperate for shelter. The RV park phenomenon is no longer just about “camping,” but about housing of last resort.

A decade ago, Forbes changed its tagline to “Change the World,” a limp retreat from the jaunty in-your-face insouciance of “The Capitalist Tool,” so maybe it’s not surprising that its coverage of RVing is equally mealy-mouthed and shallow. Were it otherwise, perhaps it might follow up on stories like that of Garlic Farm RV Park in California, midway through a three-year conversion of all 160 of its RV sites into a subdivision of 400-square-foot “tiny homes.” Or perhaps it could look at Payson, Arizona, where the mayor is urging changes in the city code to allow people to live in their RVs permanently because the school district is losing teachers who can’t find a place to rent or buy. Or it could report on the Flathead River in Kalispell, Montana, where complaints of RV sewage and portable potties being emptied into one the country’s most iconic waterways are pressuring the U.S. Forest Service to severely limit public access, if not shut it down altogether.

To the extent that the “RV park phenomenon” is an outgrowth of the explosion in RVing and camping, the story is far more nuanced and ultimately tragic than Forbes has recognized. Then again, Forbes is hardly unique. The industry overall has been so enthralled with itself that it rarely casts a critical eye on its own excesses, and at the extent to which it is contributing to the degradation of the natural environment it purportedly celebrates. “Change the world,” indeed.

Author: Andy Zipser

A former newspaper reporter who worked at a variety of newspapers, from small community weeklies to The Wall Street Journal, I finished my "normal" work life as the editor of The Guild Reporter, official publication of the union representing newspaper workers. On retiring, I and my wife bought a campground in the Shenandoah Valley and--with the help of our two daughters and their husbands--operated it for eight years, first as a KOA franchisee and then as an independent family-owned RV park. We sold the campground in May, 2021, and live in Staunton, Virginia, a short walk from our grandsons' home.

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