Are bots to blame for Ontario’s disappearing campsites?

two-people-with-an-RV-at-Ontario-Algonquin-provincial-park Photo by CL-Medien/Shutterstock

Bots or not, finding a campsite at an Ontario Park this year is like winning the lottery.

If you want to go camping at a provincial park, you can’t just kind of want to go camping. You have to really, really want to go camping. You have to want it so badly that you’ll get up early, log on to the Ontario Parks website at 7 a.m., and wait all day for something to pop up. And perhaps the next day, and the day after that. 

Nabbing a good campsite has always been a challenge, but this year it has been nearly impossible. According to a Jeff Brown, Senior Marketing Specialist for Ontario Parks, reservations have increased almost 135 per cent over the same time last year.

“With more than double the number of customers attempting to make reservations arriving during the months of July and August compared to last year, it is highly competitive,” says Brown. “In many instances there can be hundreds of customers vying for the same site for the same arrival date.”

Lately there has been speculation that not all of those customers are human—that bots are gobbling up reservations, which are then scalped to people desperate for a campsite. The rumours started circulating when a recent ad on Kijiji listed campsite reservations for sale, each with a hefty price tag. Posted by a user called Camper Bot, the ad boasted “state of the art automation technology for site booking and registration.” (The ad and website have since been taken down.)

As soon as the media got wind of the ad, there was a ton of backlash on social media. Many people have had a hard time finding a campsite this year, and some have given up altogether; the idea of someone scalping campsites has had campers up in arms.

Amy Schouten is one of many who have gone through the ordeal of reserving a camp site. This will be Amy’s fourth year camping with her family, and she has it down to a science. Since campsites open up for booking five months before the date of arrival, she plans her trip almost a year in advance. As soon as her time slot can be booked, she’s ready to pounce. 

This year when Amy booked a spot in Killarney for May, she noticed it was busier than normal. Then she booked a site at McGregor Point in June, and it was trickier to get. When she tried to book a site for the end of August, it was almost impossible.

“I don’t know what was going on with the reservation system this year,” says Amy. “I thought last year was competitive. This year was nuts.”

Amy was hunting for her usual spot in Achray, a campground in the Northeastern part of Algonquin Park. Her family has camped there on the same week for the last three years, and she says it’s usually easy to get a spot—especially on a weekday. So, like every other year, Amy logged on at 6:45 a.m., selected her site, and the second registrations opened at 7:00, she clicked reserve.

“We noticed even as the clock was turning over and we clicked reserve, it was instantaneous,” says Amy. “Everything was gone—like, everything.” With sites disappearing in less time than it takes to process a transaction, Amy couldn’t help but suspect bots.

Amy stayed logged in and checked throughout the day, without any luck. Finally, after ten days straight of trying, a miracle happened. She hit refresh and a site went from red to green. She jumped on it. 

“We just got super lucky,” she says.

Eric Shelkie had a similar experience several years ago when he and his wife couldn’t find a campsite in BC. They kept hitting refresh until finally, there was a cancellation. Shelkie, a computer programmer, thought “Hey, we could automate this and my wife wouldn’t have to sit at a computer all day.” After testing the program, he partnered with Eric Karjaluoto to found Camp Nab, a service that uses an automated program (bots) to scour parks websites for cancellations and alert customers if the site they want becomes available. Camp Nab doesn’t reserve or sell reservations—it simply does the legwork of finding a spot.

Shelkie and Karjaluoto saw the Camper Bot ad on Kijiji, and they are skeptical that the individual who posted it was actually using bots.

“We work on this problem all day long, every day, of people trying to find campsites,” says Karjaluoto, “And I have to date not seen any entity actually going and booking them in a bot-like fashion.”

He says that although the Camp Bot site boasted an “automated system,” the Camp Bot website was itself made with WIX, a website builder made for amateurs—not professional programmers. He thinks it’s unlikely that someone capable of developing a bot would use such a tool. 

“My hunch is that this is a couple of people who booked some sites and thought they could re-sell them,” says Karjaluoto. “I would be surprised given what we saw that they had underlying technology.”

According to Brown, the Ontario Parks reservation system has security measures in place to block bots. In order to book a site, you need a user account with a unique email address. This allows the system to distinguish between a customer and a machine. 

“The ministry has investigated concerns raised and can confirm there have been no instances of bots reserving campsites at Ontario Parks,” says Brown.

Karjaluoto says that even if bots aren’t to blame, there are other issues making it hard for people to book a campsite. First, there is the controversial practice of reserving 23 days (the longest stay you can book) just to secure a particular week or weekend. Instead of waiting for their actual arrival date to open for booking, some people reserve a block of time leading up to their stay—time they don’t intend to use. Then people can either cancel part of their reservation and pay the sliding-scale penalty, which ranges from 10 to 50 per cent of the original booking fee, or just show up for the portion they want. For example, if you wanted the weekend of August 26 to 28 but didn’t want to wait until March 6 to book a spot, you could log in 20 days earlier and reserve August 6 to 28—just to lock down your weekend. It’s no wonder people have such a hard time finding a campsite—and why it’s not uncommon to arrive at a campground and see premium sites sitting empty.

The other issue is the transfer of reservations, which is permitted in Ontario. For a small fee, you can transfer your booking to somebody else. Bots or not, this policy opens the door to scalping. 

This used to be a big problem in BC, where tour companies were buying up blocks of sites and re-selling them along with RV rentals. The province cracked down on this practice in 2016 by prohibiting the resale of reservations.

Brown says Ontario Parks “does not condone reselling reservations for a profit,” and is “looking into how to address this issue.” 

 Until it does, there will be a lot of not-so-happy campers.

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