Every morning, Alex Smith has walked his dog early just to be able to sit down at the computer in hopes of snagging an Ontario Parks camping site this summer.
So far, the Guelph resident hasn't had any luck. Booking a campsite in Ontario has become sort of a competition, given the big rise rise in reservations being made over last year.
"We get on the reservation system with our plan from the night before: A plan, A parking space, plan B, parking plan B, pretty much the whole alphabet," said Smith.
"And then [we] watch the clock tick over from 6:59 a.m. to 7 a.m. and start furiously clicking. And then everything that was there is gone. And that happens every morning."
Smith and his partner, Shoshanah Jacobs, plan to camp at a family's farm and local Grand River Conservation Authority parks, but they're big supporters of Ontario Parks and really want to get away to places they haven't explored before.
"Our big plan for the summer was to do a two-week trip," said Jacobs. "I think it's likely we're going to be going 45 minutes away from here, which is fine and it will be fine."
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. In many instances there can be hundreds of customers vying for the same site for the same arrival date.
- Jeff Brown, Ontario Parks senior marketing specialist
Jacobs and Smith thought it was all just bad luck. They'd seen news reports that lots of people were planning to camp this summer as a way to get out of the house during the pandemic.
Then Jacobs spotted a recent ad on Kijiji. They first saw the post on Facebook and then searched to ensure the ad for Camping Bot was authentic.
The ad, which has since been removed, claimed to use "state of the art automation technology for site booking and registration" on the Ontario Parks website.
The ad listed 20 different camping dates in 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 on a site with electricity was going for $240 on the camping bot website. Booking a site through Ontario Parks for the same number of days would cost $161.04 with taxes.
"How it works? Very simple. We transfer the booking to your name and any guests (up to six people in total)," said the ad. Payment could be made by etransfer or in person in Mississauga.
The ad also listed a website made with the free online software Wix that included a contact form. A message sent through that form asking for comment did not elicit a response.
The website has also now been taken down.
'Ontario Parks are for all people'
Jacobs and Smith aren't alone in being worried about bots scooping up camping sites.
Green Party of Ontario Leader Mike Schreiner, a Guelph MPP, says he's received calls from people about it.
Schreiner said that every year, he and his daughter go on a canoeing trip. When he went to book a site at Killarney, everything was gone. He, too, thought it was just bad luck.
"At that point, I just assumed, 'Hey, this is great. So many Ontarians want to get out in the outdoors.' And even though I thought I had given myself the time to do it, obviously it's in high demand," he said. "Now I'm starting to think, well, maybe it was a bot. Who knows?"
Schreiner said he has sent a written question to the minister of Environment, Conservation and Parks asking the ministry to look into possible bot activity. He said that request was just sent recently and he has not yet heard back.
He hopes they can get to the bottom of it.
"Ontario Parks are for all people, and we certainly don't want to see the reservation system being rigged," he said.
In a tweet in early March — in response to someone questioning why sites were been booked up so quickly — Ontario Parks said it's unlikely reservation bots were involved because the reservation system requires a unique user account for someone to be able to book a site.
"There have been no reported instances of bots reserving campsites at Ontario Parks," the tweet said.
In an emailed statement on Thursday, Jeff Brown, senior marketing specialist for Ontario Parks, said the ministry "does not condone reselling reservations for a profit and are concerned that there are some circumstances where these transfers are not used for legitimate reasons. Currently, we are looking into how to address this issue."
Brown also noted there's a great deal of competition this year for spots. There was an almost 135 per cent increase in reservations made between January and March 28 compared to the same time period 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," he said. "In many instances there can be hundreds of customers vying for the same site for the same arrival date."
May not be bots
Eric Karjaluoto runs the app Campnab, which is based in B.C. and alerts people to open camping sites at parks, but does not take reservations.
He said the Camping Bot ad was only the second time he's seen a bot being used to book a site. The other example was a bot that booked sites in B.C., only to sell them to international travellers.
There has also been speculation bots have booked up sites in the past in Banff, Alta.
Karjaluoto said it's possible for someone to write a script for a bot to get around the reservation system, and it appears someone tried that with the Camping Bot ad, but it is not easy to do.
He said in Ontario, booking dates open up five months before a person might want to camp — so people currently booking sites may be looking at September camping dates.
Once a date opens up for booking, people can book a maximum 23 days after that first day, said Karjaluoto. He said people may be booking a large number of days, such as the full 23 days, at one time. Then they will either cherry pick in those dates when they want to camp, sell or transfer the extra days to others, or cancel all but the days they want to camp closer to the day they'll go camping.
The Camping Bot ad seemed like a "fly-by-night weird thing, and I don't even know it was a bot, so much as it was someone who grabbed a bunch of reservations and tried to sell them at a profit," he said.
Karjaluoto suggests that:
People hoping to snag a spot in a favourite park should wait until 7:15 a.m., when consumers' "carts" on the website expire. That's when the sites they've been sitting on, but haven't actually booked, would become free again.
People wait until closer to when they want to go camping to see if any spots have opened up in the park they prefer