Mitch Smith will take his children out of school early for a holiday this month so they can travel to their favourite holiday spot of Crescent Head.
"Last [school] holidays everything was booked out in Crescent, everything, and they limited camping spots because of COVID so there were even less places to stay," he says.
"Just before Christmas we went up early as well and it is just nuts in the town. All those little sleepy towns, Scotts Head, Crescent Head, Hallidays Point, Diamond Head, Old Bar – the locals are hating it, the businesses are loving it and it is creating tension."
Smith, a carpenter from Warriewood, has been holidaying on the NSW North Coast for more than 40 years and takes his wife, Nicky, and sons, Aidan, 17, Jordan, 15, and Archie, 11 – and their two golden retrievers, Bindi and Charlie – every year. But since the pandemic hit it has not been easy to find somewhere to stay.
Smith says the demand for accommodation is so strong that Crescent Head council is considering getting rid of the car park that faces his favourite surfing spot to put up five-star cabins along the point.
"We are pulling the kids out of school early to enjoy Crescent Head while it is still the sleepy little town we love to visit," Smith says.
The Smiths are responding to a national surge in demand for regional accommodation, as Australian travellers banned from travelling overseas look elsewhere to spend their holiday dollars.
Grant Wilckens, chief executive of the G'day Group which manages more than 280 independent caravan and holiday parks, says the upsurge in domestic travel is delivering a winter season like no other.
"Across our network, the current booking pace is up around 150 per cent on a normal year," Wilckens says. "The standout state would be NSW with bookings up almost 200 per cent.
"Southern NSW is a particular hotspot, though the current Victorian lockdown will be a hit to these regions that have been welcoming a lot of visitors from over the border. Queensland isn't far behind with bookings up 180 per cent followed by South Australia at 170 per cent."
Simone Scoppa, travel expert at Stayz, says demand for holiday homes is also on the rise. Scoppa says destinations like Yamba and Byron Bay in NSW, and Victoria's Mornington Peninsula and the Great Ocean Road regions are seeing a 40 per cent increase in demand compared with 2019.
"Cooler climates like the Blue Mountains and Kangaroo Valley in NSW are looking most popular at the moment for the upcoming winter school holidays with 9 per cent and 14 per cent of homes available respectively to book for the first week of the school holidays from June 26 to July 3, 2021," Scoppa says.
Elements of Byron is a family resort in Byron Bay. Michael Skinner, general manager, says that while school holidays would always book out, competition has been more fierce since the pandemic hit, and with people taking children out of school there is virtually no off-peak season this year.
"We are now at the start of winter and it is traditionally the quieter time of year from May to August," he says. "In previous years accommodation providers might fall below 50 per cent occupancy but now they are 15-20 per cent higher in the softer months."
The NSW Department of Education's rules on school absences do not accept travel as a justification and parents are "encouraged to travel within the school holidays", but Michael Skinner says families travelling outside of school holidays is part of a growing trend, visible at Elements of Byron.
"We see more children around the establishment after school holidays and before school holidays; there are more kids in the pool and more families travelling, that is definitely evident," he says.
"So those families get here [outside of school holidays] and there are still children everywhere and they discover they are not the only one planning that, everyone is doing the same thing."