‘ NOT FERRY FAIR’
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.”