The federal government is open to talking with the tourism industry about making the free car travel subsidy on the Spirit of Tasmania a permanent fixture, according to Assistant Minister for Industry Development Senator Jonathon Duniam.
A free car subsidy was introduced under the Bass Strait Passenger Vehicle Equalisation Scheme for four months to boost bookings in the shoulder tourism season after the sector was hit hard by the COVID-19 border restrictions uncertainty.
Senator Duniam and TT-Line chief executive Bernard Dwyer were in Devonport to welcome the first passengers arriving under the program on the Spirit on March 1.
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Senator Duniam said he would discuss extending the car subsidy with West by North West Tourism chief Tom Wootton and Tasmanian Tourism Industry Council chief executive Luke Martin.
"The measures put in place to support every part of the economy that has suffered because of the coronavirus pandemic has been temporary and targeted to try and help us get through this," he said.
"Pre-COVID-19, we saw a great boom in the tourism industry with a significant number of people bringing their cars, motorhomes, caravans, etc., on the Spirit and coming and doing the regional tourism thing in Tassie.
"We will work with the tourism industry, and we know this program runs until the end of June, when I will be talking with Tom Wootton, Luke Martin, and others about what they need moving forward.
"If they see an extension to this as something they would like to have, then we will work with them on that basis.
"Noting though, we'd love to see tourism and Tasmania as a destination to become again the place to be, and so subsidies aren't as essential to keep bookings coming in and people coming to Tasmania."
He said the goal was to offer support to try to replicate the booming pre-COVID tourism settings into the future.
Mr Dwyer said it had been a tough year for the Spirits until now, but it was starting to show Tasmania was high on the list for people to travel here in terms of forward bookings.
He said the pre-COVID-19 demand for Spirit bookings at this time of year was "slightly under" the 13,700 bookings received this month.
"We saw bookings cooling off because of COVID and the uncertainty of the borders, and this scheme has generated more bookings for March, April, May, and June than we thought would happen," he said.
He rejected claims the cost of Spirit travel had risen since the subsidy came in.
"Every dollar in this subsidy stays with the passenger; there is not one dollar that is taken from this scheme into any other part of our organisation or any other organisation," Mr Dwyer said.
"Nothing has changed in the pricing structure of TT-Line since the rebate has come into force."
Mr Dwyer said TT-Line would endorse looking at what could get achieved from making the free car travel subsidy permanent.
"So far, more than 32,800 vehicles have booked to travel under the Bass Strait Passenger Vehicle Equalisation Scheme, which will bring a much-needed boost to tourism right across the state," Senator Duniam said.
"The coronavirus pandemic hit Tasmania's tourism industry hard, and bookings on the Spirit of Tasmania dropped by up to 85 per cent.
"Our $6 million boost is turning that around, with more than 13,700 bookings this month alone bringing travellers to our island and providing the kick-start we need to rebuild tourism.
"We know those who travel to Tasmania by sea stay longer, spend more and travel further into our regional areas. With more than 28,000 cars, 200 motorbikes, 1500 motorhomes, and 1400 caravans booked on the Spirit of Tasmania under the program, it's proving to be the incentive travellers needed to discover for themselves why Tasmania is the greatest place to holiday.
"For travel from today until 30 June 2021, or until the remaining $2.1 million in funding has been exhausted, travellers can bring their car or motorbike to Tasmania at zero cost and discover everything Tasmania has to offer.
"This represents an average saving of around $240 return for travellers, and those travelling with a caravan or motorhome will receive the average $240 return saving for their vehicle."
Senator Duniam said in terms of the people that said they were struggling to book on the Spirits; he would love to see as many people as possible gain access to bookings.
"In the first nine hours of the bookings being open for the subsidised fares, I think they were getting nine bookings a minute and just shy of 6000 bookings in nine hours," he said.
"They can handle the demand, but obviously, there are a lot of people interested in coming, and that's what we wanted to have happened."
Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg was in Devonport and asked if he would consider making the free car subsidy on the Spirits permanent.
"We will always continue to look for other areas of support," he said.
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