SCOTLAND is enjoying its biggest boom in camping since Barbara Windsor lost her bikini top in 1969.
Tens of thousands of recession-hit Scots are this summer getting their first taste of holidays under canvas, Scotland on Sunday can reveal.
Bookings for camping and caravan sites across the country are up by between a fifth and a quarter on last year – hitting levels not seen since the simpler and more austere days of the Carry On films.
Some sites have told Scotland on Sunday they are so busy they have to turn away would-be campers.
Even the usually sedate Caravan Club said nearly half of its 27 big sites north of the Border were booked out this weekend and next as occupancy rates soar 21 per cent above their levels for 2008.
Its rival, the Camping and Caravanning Club, yesterday said its Scottish sites were brimming. Spokeswoman Dawn Henton said: "We have seen a boom in camping and caravanning this year, and many people are booking ahead to secure their perfect pitch.
"Forward bookings for Scottish sites have risen by almost 25 per cent since this time in 2008, which equates to over 12,000 bookings."
The club has seen a slightly smaller rise of 16 per cent across the UK, although English and Welsh families tend to take their summer break a month or so later than Scots.
Industry insiders yesterday said that the camping and caravanning sector was being given a huge lift by the floundering pound and ongoing fears of job losses. Holidaymakers are turning their backs on expensive package holidays to the Eurozone in favour of some more basic pleasures much closer to home.
David Richards, who owns the Immervoulin Caravan and Camping Park in Strathyre, near Callander, said his site was up 30 per cent on the year.
He said: "The credit crunch is helping us. Regulars come frequently and we're getting people who haven't been for five or six years. We're also getting a lot of people who we've been recommended to. Many have never camped before. They need somewhere that will look after them.
"We're getting a lot more English people, but it's still 90-odd per cent Scots."
Kath Campbell, co-manager of Braidhaugh Holiday Park in Crieff, which is fully booked at weekends, backed Richards. "We're certainly noticing more new clients," she said. "I'm hearing people saying 'It's all new to me', when booking in. Predominantly it's Scots, but we've had a small rise in foreign bookings too. The weak pound is certainly helping."
Travellers from the continent coming to Scotland now get about 30 per cent more for their Euro than they did last year.
Camping, meanwhile, is becoming the cool way to spend a holiday with major celebrities, like Kate Moss, putting their names to the pastime.
Tents, moreover, are cheap as holiday homes go. It is possible a two-man version can cost less than 10.
Tourism industry leaders, however, remain split over whether a camping boom is good for the economy or not. There are still no figures on occupancy at hotels and holiday cottages and flats. Some tourism chiefs prefer to see big-spending hotel-stayers than penny-counting campers. But the Caravan Club isn't so sure. Its 60,000 Scottish members can have an impressive impact. Over the whole of the UK, caravanners inject an average of 17 million into the economy every year.
Big camping and caravanning groups, meanwhile, said would-be holidaymakers shouldn't despair if they are struggling to find somewhere to stay. The Caravan Club stressed that there were still pitches to be had this summer, even at weekends. It also has dozens of "five-van" sites that have spaces.
The Camping and Caravanning Club stressed that its members can book smaller "certified" sites, often with just five pitches each. There are 40 in Scotland and they can take a family of four for as little as 40 a week, although facilities can be basic.
Scottish Government officials however, are also understood to think that the camping boom will do more good than harm.
A spokesman for VisitScotland, the national tourism agency, yesterday said: "There are a number of factors contributing to the high demand for camping and caravan holidays but perhaps most notably is the current economic environment and visitors looking for quality and value for money with Scotland providing both of these throughout the country.
"It is very encouraging to see sectors of tourist accommodation exceeding expectations in terms of bookings and underlines the resilience of Scotland's tourism industry."
Five essentials for a Scottish holiday
1 Avon 'Skin So Soft & Fresh Dry Oil Body Spray': Scotland's fighting elite swear by it. For years those on guard duty at Faslane have covered themselves with this stuff to repel midges.
2 A blindfold: with dawn breaking a good two or three hours before you are ready to get up – and no heavy curtains to protect you from its glare – a blindfold is essential. Just remember to take it off when you nip to the loo.
3 Sun-tan lotion: don't snigger. The three hours of bright sunshine you get in your week's holiday is guaranteed to burn you Irn-Bru orange. Be prepared.
4 A pack of cards: with nowhere to plug in your stereo or high-definition 42-inch telly, and with the nearest town a ten-mile hike away, you have to make your own entertainment. Also good for fleecing the kids of their holiday money.
5 A sense of humour: well, when the heavens open and your campsite becomes a loch and your tent was last seen floating off into the scenic Highland landscape, you gotta laugh.