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Coronavirus: Many are still paying hundreds in site fees every month, but Northern Ireland caravan parks remain closed

Saturday and Sunday traditionally would have been one of the big weekends of the year for Northern Ireland's caravanners with thousands flocking to the North Coast for the North West 200. Linda Stewart finds out how Covid-19 has left site owners facing a financial nightmare - and would-be holidaymakers desperate for a break

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Burnside Caravan Park in Portstewart

Burnside Caravan Park in Portstewart

The deserted east strand at Portrush

The deserted east strand at Portrush

Castlerock Holiday Park

Castlerock Holiday Park

Crowds at the North West 200

Crowds at the North West 200

Caravans lying empty

Caravans lying empty

Terry O’Neill

Terry O’Neill

Conor O’Neill

Conor O’Neill

Burnside Caravan Park in Portstewart

The caravans are deserted and have been locked up for weeks and the play parks on the sites echo to birdsong rather than children's voices. The promenades and paths along the seafront are largely empty and only a few locals can be seen walking on the long stretches of sandy beaches It's a scene more reminiscent of the dead of winter, if it weren't for the warming sunshine breaking through along with the wildflowers.

This time last year, says caravan park owner Terry O'Neill, his three sites would have been packed with people relishing another summer season getting under way. The roar and whine of motorbike engines would have filled the air as bikers competed on a stretch of North West 200 course that lies close by.

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Terry O’Neill

Terry O’Neill

Terry O’Neill

"This is North West 200 week and normally I'd be so busy that I wouldn't even have time to speak to my wife," he says.

"The race track is 400 metres from one of my parks and the buzz and the energy around this time of year is phenomenal. All you can hear now is the birds chirping. It's unreal."

Terry has three parks, two in Portstewart and one in Castlerock, and all have been hit by the Covid-19 ban on travelling to second homes.

He was preparing for St Patrick's weekend, the first big caravanning weekend of the year, when things started to unravel and he had to close his gates. Bookings for touring caravans were cancelled and refunded, but Terry says private caravan park owners are unable to refund pitch fees for static caravans as these are a fixed cost that allows owners to keep their static caravans on the site. "You would be bankrupt in less than a year," he says bluntly.

"We rely heavily on caravan sales and we haven't sold a caravan since the lockdown. I've been speaking to other park operators in Portstewart and everybody is struggling at the moment to keep their business afloat because the pitch fee is heavily subsidised through caravan sales."

His son Conor (28) took over as owner of Ballyness Caravan Park in Bushmills in January and it's been a baptism of fire.

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Conor O’Neill

Conor O’Neill

Conor O’Neill

"We had one weekend and then we just had to close up during the lockdown. First we closed the public buildings and then we saw it wasn't getting any better and we pulled the plug on the whole thing. It's certainly been a tough start to a new business venture," he says.

"The response by the Government has been helpful and reassuring but I'm also worried about the future."

Conor says he lost 60% of his touring caravan business when they had to be cancelled. He issued refunds to the tune of around £40,000.

"Some businesses were not offering refunds, but were offering reallocation of dates, but I didn't think that was fair," he says.

One potential upside is that with holidays overseas looking increasingly unlikely, people are trying to organise a staycation.

"Everyone is trying to book with us at the moment, but until we know when we can reopen there's no point in opening those bookings. It's certainly been a very big hit but the Government has taken the right steps to help us. My worry is that those steps can't go on forever.

"They are very helpful, but it's prolonging the inevitable with deferred taxes and it's next year that's going to see a hit as well."

There are a number of privately owned static caravans and while Conor says he can't do anything about pitch fees, he is looking at extending the 12-year contracts to 13 years to make up for the lost season if the ban on visiting second homes continues for much longer.

"If we were to refund static customers we wouldn't be here this time next year. But nobody has been asking about it at all; our customers have been very understanding about it being a bad time for everybody," he says.

At the moment four people are living at Ballyness by prior arrangement - with the approval of the PSNI - as they are unable to live at home due to self-isolation rules.

One couple is staying there because their daughter at home is a student nurse who has been called up for front line work and they are self-isolating due to health conditions. We're allowed to operate within a very tight window, it's not for holiday use. It's important people still obey the restrictions," Conor says.

But he does believe the caravan sector will be the safer option for people to go on breaks once the restrictions begin to relax a little.

"I'm optimistic that we will see things opening up a little in August or maybe even the end of July, hopefully," he says.

"We can operate safely. Our caravans are all 10 metres apart and they're self-contained. They're like miniature service apartments. I feel that we could operate safely at half capacity. But it's the travelling around that the Government wants to stop.

"I think the caravan industry could be busier after this in the long run, so it's very important that we get the right information as to how to operate safely."

Karen Elliott (57), who runs Bush Caravan Park in Bushmills and caters to touring caravans, says the site is usually chock-a-block at this time of year with foreign visitors from Italy, France, Germany and Holland who come in large groups.

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The deserted east strand at Portrush

The deserted east strand at Portrush

The deserted east strand at Portrush

"We just refunded everybody because it's not their fault that they aren't able to come. After The Open last year the momentum was really building with the golf and it had set us on the map," she says.

"You could be self-sufficient here. The pitches are very well spaced out and there is plenty of room between the caravans. We're out in the country, about three miles from Portrush and three miles from Bushmills.

"I think we could open up very easily, but you have to consider, if lots of people started coming up to the North Coast, whether the hospital would be able to cope."

The industry is anticipating that if static caravans are treated under the same rules as second homes they could be cleared for use much sooner than touring caravans.

That would be good news for dinner lady Jayne Evans (36) from north Belfast, who is missing regular visits to her static caravan in Millisle with her husband Thomas, son Lucas (11) and daughter Caitlin (8). They'd have spent a lot of time there every year from St Patrick's Day through to the end of summer.

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Castlerock Holiday Park

Castlerock Holiday Park

Castlerock Holiday Park

"The kids love the freedom of getting down there and seeing all their friends," she says.

"Where we live is on a street, we've no front garden and the house is on the road. But when we're down there we don't need to worry about cars or anybody getting hurt. It's just amazing, it's like a different world."

Jayne says she's paying £200 a month in pitch fees.

"I didn't want to stop paying it because my caravan is still on the site," she says. "I'm not using the facilities and it's a bit disheartening because you have to pay because you're in a contract. I don't want my caravan taken off the site, so I'll just keep paying and I'm hoping we do get a wee bit of summer out of it.

"If we put up the windbreakers, you could go down there and social distance, if the kids are playing outside the caravan. Caitlin would draw and paint.

"Lucas has autism and is at mainstream school. He's used to routine and he's been all over the place for the last couple of weeks and I'm trying to do different things with him, but it would just be a change of scenery.

"We just need to take 2020 out of the calendar. I really pray that they do open it for the kids, for their sanity too, and for a wee change of scenery."

Uel McCullough (51) from Ballymena, a maintenance worker in care homes, went to his static caravan in Juniper Hill, Portstewart, throughout the year with his partner Sharon and often with his daughter Toni (19) and granddaughter Amelia (2).

"We go down spring, summer, autumn, even winter if at all possible - we had the Christmas tree up," he says.

"You go down and the minute you open the doors it's just a feeling. I wish I could bottle it and sell it.

"We were down every weekend. The minute I finished work I started home, got our bits and pieces and away we went and that was us until Monday morning. It's just getting away."

Because it's a council-run site, Uel has been promised that his fees will be refunded from the closure on March 23 through to reopening.

Uel feels stuck at home now and believes there's little difference between isolating at home and isolating in a caravan, although he understands the concern that reopening caravan parks could open the floodgates and prompt other visitors to pour into Portstewart. "But you can be isolated at a caravan park. The caravans are five or six metres apart and you are only in close contact with your family."

One caravan park owner in the Ards Peninsula says it has been an emotional time for everyone. James Kennedy (74), who owns five caravan parks, mostly with static caravans, admits it was difficult telling people to leave after having opened for the season on St Patrick's Day.

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James Kennedy

James Kennedy

James Kennedy

"We watched the news and saw everything that was going on in Westminster and once they made the decision that the caravan parks should close, we told the people who were in the caravan park," he says.

"We went round and told everybody that the Government said that caravan parks have to close and would you please go home; that was very difficult actually, but they all did. I knew we had to take the brunt - they vented their anger on us as we were there. But we were not wanting to put our business in jeopardy by breaking the law, and we would never do that."

Almost all 22 staff are still being employed and paid to care for the parks despite how quiet it is, he says.

"Good Friday is normally manic, very, very busy. This year it was just awful," he says.

"It was very emotional, actually, and it was very hard to take for the staff. You do look forward to your caravanners coming with their families, but this year it was locked up and there was nobody about and it was very stressful."

Mr Kennedy describes the outlook for this season as dire.

"At this point in time I would probably have something in the region of £1m worth of caravan stock that I would be selling between now and June/July. I haven't opened a caravan since the middle of March and it's my stock I have to pay for.

"From a caravan sales point of view, I am writing this season off. That will mean revenue for the financial year will be reduced by about 80%, but my overheads are exactly the same and we're losing a lot of money every day. But it is what it is.

"It's much better to be safe and it's much better to want to get rid of this virus rather than worry about whether the bank is going to close you down or not."

While he did apply for the Business Support Grant, he was only entitled to apply for £25,000 despite owning multiple sites and still hasn't seen any of it despite applying on April 20.

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Caravans lying empty

Caravans lying empty

Caravans lying empty

"To be brutally honest, £25,000 doesn't even create a ripple in a business of this size, it would be like throwing a stone into the Irish Sea," he says.

He says he's most concerned about what happens this time next year.

"How are we going to pay for all this support that people are getting? Taxation is going to increase and I think our general standard of living is going to fall."

Mr Kennedy also questions why the approach in Northern Ireland isn't aligned with the rest of the UK, especially when it comes to business rates relief.

"We're part of the UK, so why can we not be aligned. Why are the devolved governments not following the line from Westminster?"

Belfast Telegraph