Port Douglas & Mossman Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - HEATHER BECK

TOURISM op­er­a­tors have wel­comed progress on the Dain­tree Gateway as fi­nal glitches were ironed out at a meet­ing this week - but ques­tions sur­round­ing the ex­or­bi­tant cost of the Dain­tree ferry have resur­faced.

Cairns Re­gional Coun­cil will ad­dress the fi­nal changes to the Gateway Mas­ter Plan be­fore it is pre­sented to the Plan­ning and En­vi­ron­ment Com­mit­tee meet­ing next Wed­nes­day.

How­ever with $1.3 mil­lion in Dain­tree ferry re­serve funds slated for the pro­ject, lo­cals are ask­ing whether some of the prof­its should in­stead be used to pro­vide re­lief for strug­gling busi­nesses across the river, through ferry sub­si­dies or shoul­der sea­son sup­port.

Coun­cil re­cently in­creased the cost of a re­turn ticket to $22, the lat­est move in a saga of ferry fees that date back to the early days of Dou­glas Shire Coun­cil (DSC).

Long-time res­i­dents re­mem­ber the 2003 court case when busi­nesses chal­lenged the DSC’s right to add a $4 Con­ser­va­tion and In­fra­struc­ture Levy to the ex­ist­ing one-way ferry fee.

The Om­buds­man ruled that coun­cil’s bid to add the fee was il­le­gal as coun­cil was not a tax­ing body, not­ing that the ferry’s op­er­at­ing sur­plus ex­ceeded 50 per cent of its run­ning and main­te­nance costs.

At the time, coun­cil ar­gued the pro­ceeds were be­ing used within the re­gion and that op­er­at­ing sur- pluses were not guar­an­teed due to fac­tors such as visi­tor num­bers and dredg­ing costs.

Fol­low­ing amal­ga­ma­tion with Cairns Re­gional Coun­cil, lo­cal coun­cil­lor Ju­lia Leu fought for the ferry re­serve fund to be kept sep­a­rate from coun­cil cof­fers and used for in­vest­ment in the re­gion.

“Ev­ery­one agrees the area is in need of ma­jor makeover and the mas­ter plan has now gone through an ex­ten­sive con­sul­ta­tion process with com­mu­nity, busi­ness and gov­ern­ment stake­hold­ers,” she said.

How­ever Tourism Dain­tree Coast’s Neil Hewett claimed coun­cil was in­tend­ing to use the money gen­er­ated by tourists want­ing to visit the north side of the river to re­de­velop the south side.

“In­stead they should be try­ing to re-es­tab­lish north of the river to cre­ate a level play­ing field be­tween the two des­ti­na­tions,” he said.

Mr Hewett ar­gued that the fee was es­sen­tially a tax which coun­cil did not charge at any other des­ti­na­tion in the re­gion and pe­nalised the Dain­tree ahead of Cairns, Port Dou­glas or the Table­lands.

“Coun­cil is sup­posed to put in place strate­gies which is sup­port­ive of tourism but is in­stead charg­ing $22 for a re­turn trip - an earn­ing mech­a­nism which is chok­ing tourism busi­nesses north of the river,” he said.

Other op­er­a­tors be­lieve in-depth stud­ies should be done to de­ter­mine the ex­tent to which ferry fee act as a de­ter­rent as well as the ex­act value of the self-drive, day trip mar­ket.

Ma­son’s Tours owner Lawrence Ma­son said he was pos­i­tive about the Gateway pro­ject and the use of ferry pro­ceeds but recog­nised that there was “a great sen­si­tiv­ity” around the level of the ferry fee.

“I think in the long term they should be aim­ing at charg­ing the barest min­i­mum pos­si­ble, and in five or six years pos­si­bly mak­ing it free as it is part of a pub­lic road to Cape Tribu­la­tion,” he said.

“The global fi­nan­cial sit­u­a­tion isn’t go­ing to im­prove any­time soon, so we need to do ev­ery­thing we can to en­cour­age peo­ple to en­ter the re­gion. “

Croc­o­dile Ex­press op­er­a­tor Vince O’Fla­herty, who was be­hind the drive for the free ferry trial dur­ing this year’s Easter School Hol­i­days, said the Dain­tree des­per­ately needed a hand.

“The fact is, you’ve got a ferry charge which has just gone up again so for a tour op­er­a­tor who is run­ning two or three times a day it may have im­pacted them by two or three thou­sand a year.

“Coun­cil’s eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment team should be look­ing at the sce­nar­ios and the true value of the self drive visi­tor against the cost of the ferry and whether it’s a de­ter­rent,” he said.

“It’s never been an­a­lysed and when you con­sider that all the fer­ries on main roads down south are free, it is a $22 tax to the re­gion.”

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