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Have reservation robots taken over Ontario Parks sites this summer?  Campers have questions

Have reservation robots taken over Ontario Parks sites this summer? Campers have questions

Every morning, Alex Smith walks his dog early just so he can sit at the computer in hopes of snatching up a campground in Ontario Parks this summer.

So far, the Guelph resident has been unlucky. Booking a campsite in Ontario has become a bit of a competition, given the sharp increase in bookings made last year.

“We go into the reservation system with our plan from the night before: a plan, a parking spot, a plan B, a parking plan B, pretty much the entire alphabet,” Smith said.

“So what [we] watch the clock go from 6:59 a.m. to 7 a.m. and start clicking furiously. And then everything that was there is gone. And it happens every morning. “

Smith and his partner, Shoshanah Jacobs, plan to camp on a family’s farm and in local Grand River Conservation Authority parks, but they are big supporters of Ontario Parks and really want to get away from it all to places they they have never explored before.

“Our big plan for the summer was to take a two week trip,” Jacobs said. “I think it’s likely we’ll be leaving 45 minutes from here, which is good and that will be good.”

With more than double the number of customers trying to book arriving during the months of July and August compared to last year, it is very competitive. In many cases, there can be hundreds of clients vying for the same site for the same arrival date.– Jeff Brown, Senior Marketing Specialist at Ontario Parks

Jacobs and Smith thought it was just bad luck. They had seen reports that many people were planning to camp this summer to get out of their homes during the pandemic.

Then Jacobs spotted a recent ad on Kijiji. They saw the post on Facebook first, then searched to make sure the ad for Camping Bot was genuine.

The ad, which has since been deleted, claimed to use “cutting-edge automation technology for booking and listing sites” on the Ontario Parks website.

The ad listed 20 different camping dates at various provincial parks, including Pinery, Killbear, Sandbanks and Algonquin. In each case, the cost was more than what people would pay if they booked directly with Ontario Parks.

For example, a three-night stay at Killbear Provincial Park over the August long weekend at a site with electricity cost $ 240 on the camping bot’s website. Reserving a site through Ontario Parks for the same number of days would cost $ 161.04 including tax.

An ad on Kijiji for the Camping Bot said it could sell fully booked Ontario Parks people sites this summer. The ad has since been deleted. This is a cached version of the web ad. (Kijiji / Google Cache)

“How does it work? Very simple. We transfer the reservation to your name and to all guests (up to six people in total),” the ad said. Payment can be made by electronic transfer or in person in Mississauga.

The ad also listed a website made with free online software Wix that included a contact form. A message sent via this form requesting a comment did not elicit a response.

The website was also taken down.

“ Ontario Parks are for everyone ”

Jacobs and Smith aren’t the only ones worried about bots scavenging campsites.

Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner, Member of Parliament for Guelph, says he’s received calls from people about this.

Schreiner said that each year he and his daughter go canoeing. When he went to book a site in Killarney, it was all gone. He too thought it was just bad luck.

“At that point, I just assumed, ‘Hey, that’s awesome. So many Ontarians want to get out in the great outdoors.’ And even though I thought I had given myself time to do that, it’s obviously in high demand, ”he said. “Now I’m starting to think, well, maybe it was a robot. Who knows?”

Schreiner said he sent a written question to the Minister of Environment, Conservation and Parks, asking the department to look into possible bot activity. He said this request had just been sent out recently and had yet to receive a response.

He hopes they can get to the bottom of this.

“Ontario Parks are for everyone, and we certainly don’t want the reservation system rigged,” he said.

In a tweet in early March – in response to someone wondering why sites were booked so quickly – Ontario Parks said reservation bots were unlikely to be involved as the reservation system requires an account single user so that someone can book a site.

“There have been no reported cases of bots booking campsites in Ontario Parks,” the tweet read.

In an emailed statement Thursday, Jeff Brown, senior marketing specialist for Ontario Parks, said the ministry “does not tolerate the resale of for-profit reservations and is concerned that these transfers may be used for legitimate reasons in certain circumstances. . Currently, we are investigating how to resolve this issue. ”

Brown also noted that there was a lot of competition this year for places. There was an almost 135% increase in bookings made between January and March 28 compared to the same period last year.

“With more than double the number of customers trying to book arriving during the months of July and August compared to last year, it is very competitive,” he said. “In many cases, there can be hundreds of clients vying for the same site for the same arrival date.”

Maybe not bots

Eric Karjaluoto runs the Campnab app, which is based in British Columbia and warns people to open campsites in parks, but doesn’t take reservations.

He said the Camping Bot ad was only the second time he’s seen a robot being used to book a site. The other example was a robot that booked sites in British Columbia, only to sell them to international travelers.

Bots have also booked sites in the past in Banff, Alberta.

Karjaluoto said that it was possible for someone to write a script for a bot to bypass the reservation system, and it seems someone has tried this with the Camping Bot ad, but it doesn’t. is not easy to do.

He said that in Ontario, reservation dates open five months before a person wants to camp – so people who are currently booking at the sites can look up camping dates in September.

Once a date opens for booking, people can book a maximum of 23 days after that first day, Karjaluoto said. He said people can book a lot of days, like the full 23 days, at a time. Then they will choose the dates they want to camp, sell or transfer the extra days to others, or cancel every day except the days they want to camp closer to the day they go camping.

The Camping Bot ad seemed like a “weird night thing, and I don’t even know it was a robot, as much as it was someone who grabbed a bunch of bookings and tried to sell them with a profit, ”he said.

Karjaluoto suggests that:

  • People hoping to land a spot at a favorite park should wait until 7:15 am, when consumers’ “baskets” on the website will expire. That’s when the sites they sat on, but didn’t actually book, would become free again.
  • People wait until they are closer to when they want to go camping to see if spaces have opened up in the park they prefer.

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