Despite B.C. launching its upgraded camping reservation website on Monday morning, users still reported frustrations with the process.
The new portal, which operates through the BC Parks website replaces the older Discover Camping website that attracted frequent complaints about being prone to crashes, confusing to navigate and taking too long to book.
On Monday, social media users trying to book a campsite reported a change in format that didn’t appear to have been announced: A lottery system, with people placed randomly in a queue and waiting for as little as 15 minutes or more than an hour, depending on where they landed in line, as opposed to multiple users being able to compete for preferred campsites at the same time.
According to the Ministry of Environment, at 7 a.m. there were 23,000 people in the queue and the queue was cleared within the first 45 minutes.
The ministry said almost 16,000 bookings were made by 9 a.m. and some parks still have some availability for the May long weekend. It said 97 per cent of bookings made during the first three hours were made from within B.C.
“The queuing system is only in place for opening day and is also used by other park agencies to provide fairness and transparency for site access during peak periods,” the ministry said in a statement. “People are randomly placed in a virtual waiting room to access the system-wide list of parks, mitigating system overloads.”
The province has said the new site will include “more flexible search options” to find and books sites, better maps, calendars and lists of available sites “for quicker navigation.”
Campers will still be able to make bookings within a rolling two-month window.
People will also be able to use maps to search campgrounds by region, park listing or site availability, find information on nearby facilities and better photos of campsites, and use an interactive calendar that shows when booked sites become free.
It will also allow people to create personal accounts to save their booking preferences.
Boyan Blocka was among a group of users who checked out the new site during a recent beta-testing preview.
“I think, like a lot of B.C. people, we’ve experienced first hand what it was like to try to book a campsite,” Blocka, who described himself as a “digitally savvy concerned camper,” said of the old website.
“You get up early, everyone pots on a phone, you’re on a conference call with your buddies trying to book a campsite, and the sites are disappearing in front of you in real time.”
Having tried out the new system, Blocka told Global News on Sunday the thing he likes about it is speed.
“It’s fast. Though it remains to be seen if it’s fast when there’s lots of people hitting it at once. It’s smooth, it’s responsive. … In previous versions, there was a lot more clutter,” he said.
“You felt like you were trying to pilot a 747 to get that campsite. Now a lot of that visual clutter is away, they sort of start with a date-driven approach or you choose by facility and it sort of drills down. It feels better. It feels modern.”
While Blocka gave the new site a generally good review, he said the beta-testing experience left him with plenty of questions.
While he was able to explore the website, he said the preview did not allow users to simulate an end-to-end experience, from finding a site through to booking and confirming it.
“They got most of it, they had a few sample sites in there, but I didn’t feel like it sort of answered questions of whether this was going to work or not,” he said.
“I was hoping there would be some more engagement or even a phone call where we could express some of our concerns up front about what we’d like to see in the new site, and I don’t feel like that was addressed.”
The new website is expected to handle at least 1,000 bookings per minute. That capacity will be needed, given BC Parks has seen a 200-per-cent increase in demand for reservations in recent years.
“Camping in our provincial parks remains one of the most affordable and one of the most valuable experiences for British Columbians. That interest has never been greater than it is now,” Louise Pederson, executive director of the Outdoor Recreation Council of BC told Global News.
“BC Parks has not been able to keep up with that demand for affordable camping and recreational opportunities .. we would certainly like to see BC parks continue to increase the number of sites.”
The parks service says it has added 1,700 new sites since 2017, just under a third of them in the high-demand Lower Mainland region.
The park service has pledged new measures to manage high site traffic, including bringing extra staff on to its call centre, scaling up web servers, and using queueing software to try and reduce peak demand.
Booking for regular campgrounds became available at 7 a.m. Reservations for group campsites will open on March 24.
B.C.’s “locals-first” policy, created to ensure availability for British Columbians during the pandemic, has been scrapped.
You can find out more about the new camping reservation system at bcparks.ca/reserve.
— With files from Kamil Karamali and Owen Munro