Small camping company returns $51,000 in JobKeeper payments

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An unprecedented interest in camping has prompted a small business that saw post-lockdown bookings boom to return its JobKeeper payment to the federal government.

James Woodford, the director of Hipcamp Australia, said the company had decided to voluntarily return $51,000 in payments after bookings took off for the organisation’s 2000 listings across Australia after lockdown last year. And this summer is on track to be even better.

James Woodford runs HipCamp, a company that plans to return its $51,000 in JobKeeper to the Australian Tax Office.Credit:Wolter Peeters

“Once I realised that our forward bookings were looking so strong, it seemed unconscionable for us to keep that money,” Mr Woodford said.

The decision was taken in consultation with the company’s 10 staff located in Moruya on the NSW South Coast. “We have done so well,” he said.

Of the $89 billion in JobKeeper payments given to a million businesses, 75 had approached the Australian Tax Office seeking to voluntarily repay amounts, the ATO’s Commissioner Chris Jordan told an inquiry earlier this month. Of those, 62 had already repaid $203 million. Retailer Harvey Norman has said it will return $6 million, and hearing implant provider Cochlear said it had returned $23.1 million. The ATO says returning JobKeeper is not compulsory.

Mr Woodford said JobKeeper had been a “godsend” last year. “Money ran out the door as hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of cancellations came in,” he said.

As well as seeing increased interest from campers, the company had seen a threefold interest in the number of listings. Together the 2000 sites stretch across a million hectares, he said.

“I think the bigger story for us is that when we look beyond lockdown, we were worried that everyone would be heading off to Bali, and doing everything but camping,” Mr Woodford said. “What has surprised us is that people have discovered the joys of camping, domestic tourism and more simple pleasures. That change may be here to stay.

“We are seeing very high bookings over Christmas and New year, unexpectedly high. People want to be camping and don’t have confidence that interstate or international travel will be available.”

The retail market for sport and camping has also risen 11.6 per cent to $5.1 billion, says the market research company IBISWorld.

That was reflected in a 25 per cent increase in demand for camping sites in NSW national parks last year. Pre-bookings this year had exceeded 2020’s, said a spokesperson for National Parks and Wildlife Service.

Camping and outdoor wear chain Kathmandu has also seen strong interest. Its chief executive Reuben Casey said customers are keen to spend time in the outdoors.

Once Megan Hanckel listed Down by the Hawkesbury, a camping spot on her property, on Hipcamp last November it “went crazy” with bookings.

She wanted to cater for local people who hadn’t been able to travel because of COVID-19. “I wanted them to enjoy my little slice of paradise,” she said. “Making some extra money is a bonus.”

Ms Hanckel only rents the riverside site to one group at a time, and charges $75 a night for the first two people who make the booking and then $25 a night to each of their friends. Her site includes a toilet, a bush shower, and a covered area with a large dining table and a fireplace.

Megan Hanckel owns Down by the Hawkesbury, a private property that lists camping spots on HipCamp, a website that connects campers with sites on private properties across Australia. Credit:Wolter Peeters

Some sites on Hipcamp offer rustic accommodation, including in shearing sheds, and others also provide farm experiences or other activities.

A big attraction of Hipcamp sites is pets are usually welcome. Any site near a beach or a river and where someone can take a pet is usually booked out, said Mr Woodford.

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