It’s a perennial question for the Byron Shire: how do we funnel some of the tourist dollars that flood the region each year into infrastructure for the community?
A bed-tax plan has been knocked down by the state government more times than Rocky Balboa, and any proposal for new parking meters invariably has locals reaching for their placards and pitchforks.
But Greens mayor Simon Richardson believes he may have come up with a solution – a voluntary visitor fund (VVF).
It isn’t the first time the idea of a visitor fund has been mooted, of course. In 2014, Council ran a trial in which visitors to two of its caravan parks were asked to make a voluntary contribution, but received barely enough to buy a round of chai lattes.
But the new plan – to be voted on at this week’s Council meeting – appears to be different.
Instead of giving tourists a choice about whether or not to cough up a contribution, it will simply be added to their bill if they are staying with an accommodation provider who has agreed to be part of the scheme.
The providers will be asked to sign up to the fund, and in return will be able to promote themselves as ‘good corporate citizens’ using an online video and booklets created by Council.
Cr Richardson said, ‘We’ve been speaking with industry – from five-star resorts to backpacker hostels – and the concept of the community getting a couple of extra bucks from each booking is wholeheartedly supported.’
‘There are a few we’re expecting to put their hands up straight away.’
The contribution from tourists will range from $1 to $5 per booking, depending on how much they are spending. It’s hardly a king’s ransom, but the mayor believes it will add up to a significant contribution.
According to modelling undertaken by Council staff, the VVF could reap $220,000 in its first year.
Staff predict there would also be an upfront cost of $140,000, including the cost of ‘branding’ ($50,000) and hiring an officer to administer the scheme.
Cr Richardson said that the money raised through the scheme would be used for highly visible projects such as building new playgrounds, boardwalks and change rooms.
‘I think it’s really important that people see where the money goes because if they find it hard to see the benefit they will be less motivated to stay involved or support it,’ he said.
‘We also plan for the money to be spent where it’s raised. So if businesses in Brunswick Heads contribute $5,000, that money will be spent on a project in Brunswick Heads.’
Under the proposal, Council would manage the trust account and distribute the funds to various projects.
A steering committee made up of industry and community representatives would undertake promotion and marketing and bring in members from the local accommodation industry.
These members would ultimately decide how the money was spent.
‘It would essentially be a “pay to play” situation,’ Cr Richardson said.
‘The industry indicated that from the administration point of view it’s easier for Council to do it rather than reinventing the wheel by creating a whole new administrative apparatus.
‘But when it comes to decision making Council will have just as much say as the other accommodation providers.’
In the ‘staff comments’ section of the report accompanying the proposal, Council’s director of sustainable environment and economy Shannon Burt noted that there were potential financial risks associated with the scheme.
‘The potential risk to Council is the unknown amount of revenue that will be raised and potentially not being able to cover the administration costs of the program,’ Ms Burt said.
‘Also, there is still a lot of work that needs to be completed around the collection methodology and the auditing process (and the somewhat lack of transparency).
‘The Economy and Sustainability team would work through these issues with the appointed executive officer.’
Cr Richardson acknowledged there was a risk involved. ‘But the simple fact is that we need to find some way of getting money from visitors to put back into the community,’ he said.
‘If this works, it could potentially generate hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, each year for the community