HOOGEVEEN, Netherlands (Reuters) - Mention caravans to the Dutch and watch their eyes gleam.
They may be some of the world’s tallest people but the Dutch love squeezing themselves and their families into tiny, boxy interiors and boast of the fact that at any time, in any camp site the world over there will probably be a Dutch caravaner.
“I think I was conceived in one,” joked Maarten de Roos, director of the sole remaining Dutch caravan manufacturer Kip Caravans, whose staff have just saved it from bankruptcy with a buy-out from its previous owner.
Even among Europe’s die-hards, the caravan’s appeal had been waning: annual caravan sales in the Netherlands fell by 35 percent between 2003 and 2007, which De Roos blamed on a weak Dutch economic climate and poor consumer confidence of recent years.
Budget flights, package holidays and people’s ever-increasing wanderlust may also have conspired to consign the caravan to history, making it the nostalgia-fuelled hobby of a handful of ageing enthusiasts.
But the rescue of Kip, which goes back to 1934 and means ‘chicken’ in Dutch, comes as holiday-makers elsewhere in Europe are increasingly getting the caravanning bug.
Interest in caravanning is not driven by penny-pinching so much as a mix of nostalgia, environmental concern or the novelty kick of swapping a hotel room for an increasingly luxurious mobile home.
“Caravans are developing a glamorous appeal,” said Ruth Walmsley of Britain’s Camping and Caravanning Club, which has seen a surge in new members and campsite bookings.
Forty-thousand people joined in 2007 alone.
“People see celebrities in motorhomes and think ‘if they have all that money but are staying in a caravan instead of a 5-star hotel there must be some appeal,”’ she said.
A new breed of luxury caravans with under-floor heating and striking design is also luring new users across Europe, and has given rise to a new concept in outdoor holidays -- “glamping.”
“We think there is a beautiful future for caravans,” said de Roos.
Countering arguments that they are slow, cumbersome and outdated, De Roos says they allow complete freedom and are shaking off their cheap connotations.
Their appeal to families is obvious, and, with the number of retired people growing throughout western Europe, the number of potential customers is also expanding, he says.
“We expect sales to go up in the second half of this year.”
Kip, which means chicken in Dutch, was formerly part of the larger Tirus Group which owned caravan brands in several countries and filed for bankruptcy after liquidity problems and falling sales. However, Kip managed to secure backing as an independent manufacturer.
The Netherlands’ population of 16 million own half a million caravans, with about 20,000 new caravans bought every year.
There are sneering tales of the Dutch driving their own dried pasta all the way to Italy, to boil in their caravans, and Dutch drivers with a caravan in tow have infuriated their European neighbors for decades.
The Dutch themselves remain unfazed -- after all the caravan shields them from the angry faces in the rear view mirror.
“The Netherlands is small so we are tempted out to see the countryside beyond,” explained Hans Heida, 65, of the Vintage Caravan society.
“It is about freedom and price. We like to go to many places but hotels are expensive, so this is the way,” said Eddie van der Valk, 77, a visitor at a Dutch caravan trade fair.
At Kip’s assembly hall the staff’s love of caravans is palpable, as is their pride at having saved a cottage industry with a long history.
Jan Kip, the founder of Kip Caravans, initially manufactured wagons and trailers, but built his first caravan in 1947 for his personal use.
Wanting to make it easier to meet his wife at weekends who lived several hours further south in Amsterdam, Kip stationed a caravan midway between them. Soon enquiries for similar caravans came pouring in.
Today Kip turns out about 1,000 caravans a year. In its factory in the northern town of Hoogeveen the caravans are put together manually by a staff of 30. The one woman employed on the shop floor affixes the soft furnishings and the curtains.
Kip caravans, which range in price from 15,000 euros ($22,210) to 35,000 euros, are built from the inside out. Miniature kitchen fittings, cabinets and wooden shelves are fixed to a simple wooden platform on wheels. Then the walls, stacked vertically in the factory ready for use, are attached.
The resulting interior may be small, but it is ingenious with a dazzling array of fold-out shelves and concealed closets.
Caravan dealer Rolf Reinders laughed off suggestions that the compact interior may stir blazing rows among the occupants.
“I’ve never fought with my family in a caravan,” he said.
Editing by Sara Ledwith