A group of family-owned small business tourism operators fear access to Mulgumpin, Moreton Island, will cease as they struggle to navigate management of the island by the State Government and the Quandamooka Yoolooburrabee Aboriginal Corporation (QYAC).
Moreton Daily met with some of the tourism operators earlier this month who are concerned about changes to Commercial Activity Permits arrangements which limit the life of the permits to one year and impose new restrictions on camping. They asked not to be named due to fear of commercial reprisals.
Some of the operators have been running their businesses for decades, but say their futures are now uncertain with permits due to run out next August and no guarantee they will be renewed.
They say permits were previously issued for a minimum of three years but this was reduced to two years while the process of land transfer to the island’s traditional owners took place.
In August this year, following a meeting with Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service which is part of the Department of Environment and Science and QYAC, permits for 12 months were issued.
Business owners says they need long-term permits to negotiate finance arrangements with banks, and to make business investment decisions.
They also say they need permit security, so they can lawfully take forward bookings. They applied for a review of their permits which was declined.
One operator says 15-year permits are available to operate on K’gari, Fraser Island, and they cannot understand why access to Mulgumpin is different.
A spokesperson for the Department of Environment and Science says K’gari permits are issued under the Queensland Eco and Sustainable Tourism initiative.
“This was discussed with Mulgumpin operators, but they declined it at the time,” they said.
Minutes from a meeting held on February 10, 2021, during which the issue was raised, offered a different explanation.
“The QuEST arrangements on K’gari provide for 15-year authorities. This framework was proposed to be rolled out to Mulgumpin, however the native title process has superseded this. The Quest framework requires reconsideration by Government.
“The current legislation allows for the maximum of three years. We will raise this point for higher level consideration,” the department representative said at the time.
Moreton Daily has been told conditions for commercial camping have changed and sites can only remain for 30 days before they have to be dismantled and moved.
One operator we spoke to is usually booked 18 months in advance, with large school groups. He says his business is no longer viable under the current permit conditions.
Moreton Daily put a series of questions to Environment Minister Meaghan Scanlon, Tourism Minister Stirling Hinchliffe and QYAC.
Minister Scanlon referred us to the Department of Environment and Science, which provided a written statement that did not answer many of the questions.
Minister Hinchliffe’s office and QYAC confirmed receipt of the questions but have not yet provided a response. Moreton Daily will be happy to publish their responses, if they are provided.
What the department said
An unnamed Department of Environment and Science spokesperson says: “Mulgumpin is an iconic cultural and ecotourism destination, and the permits issued provide significantly more scope for tourism to flourish and grow”.
“Previously, several operators were monopolising the use of the commercial camping areas by maintaining a permanent footprint of mostly unoccupied tents and structures that prevented other operators, tourists and other visitors from being able to use the campsite.
“Based on the available data provided by the ‘standing camp’ operators in their commercial activity returns, paying guests only occupied some commercial sites on average of about 30 days per site per year across the last five years.
“That leaves 335 days where these sites had no paying visitors but were effectively ‘blocked out’ and unable to be used.
“These sites have a combined capacity of 450 persons per night equating to a potential for over 150,000 more visitors per year, or 750,000 visitors over five years. Some operators did not report having more than 450 persons visiting in a whole year.”
The department’s figures include the period from 2022-22, when COVID-19 hit the tourism industry and visitor numbers hard. Operators say they are still recovering.
The statement goes on to say: “QPWS and QYAC have endorsed a sustainable visitor capacity study to better inform the future tourism opportunities for Mulgumpin.
“This includes providing fair and equitable access for all park users and ensuring Commercial Tour Operators are complying with their requirements to enable genuine and productive partnerships in providing quality visitor services in this unique setting.
“QPWS and QYAC will continue to work closely with operators to implement the new arrangements to ensure tourism on Mulgumpin continues to prosper now and in the future.”
The statement does not address questions about permit length and providing certainty to operators.
The assessment of permits and decisions are a statutory responsibility of the Chief Executive of the Department of Environment and Science.
“Commercial Operators can apply towards the end of their permit term to have their permits renewed, and a further assessment will take place after an application is made,” the statement says.
Keen to engage
The operators who spoke to Moreton Daily say they would welcome the chance to meet with Ministers Scanlon and Hinchliffe and QYAC to constructively work through solutions in an attempt to gain certainty.
Moreton Bay Region Industry and Tourism (MBRIT) wrote to the department in September calling for a meeting and a rethink on permit conditions and length – to three years.
The letter said the current terms were “grossly inadequate” to enable tour operators to run viable businesses citing lack of financial security, an inability to take forward bookings and fears for employees who rely on the operators to make a living.
MBRIT was told operators could apply for a review – these applications have since been declined – and there had been several in person meetings with both the Quandamooka Yoolooburrabee Aboriginal Corporation and commercial tour operators.
“The department will continue to engage with Traditional Owners and Commercial Tour Operators on Mulgumpin,” the response read.
Moreton Daily understands only one in-person meeting has been held with operators and QYAC on April 22, 2022. Operators believe this has not given them the opportunity to discuss the permits in good faith.
In its statement to Moreton Daily, the department did not answer questions about whether the Ministers responsible would be willing to convene a meeting.
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