The prospective operator of a ferry service between Portland and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, must finalize needed agreements within the next few weeks or it will miss its chance to market the ferry to tour operators for 2014.
Time has already run out for many companies that are booking tours to Nova Scotia and Maine next summer because they need six to eight months to sell the tours, said Donna Hanson, vice president of The Maine Tour Connection in South Portland, which specializes in tours of New England and eastern Canada.
“I can’t sell what I haven’t seen, and I can’t sell what I don’t have pricing for,” said Hanson, whose company sells tour packages to tour companies around the country. Those companies resell the packages to small groups that want bus tours of Maine and Nova Scotia.
Tour bus passengers accounted for much of the business of the previous ferries that operated between Portland and Yarmouth, and would be critical to the success of the new service.
Nova Scotia’s government chose a joint venture company last month to operate the ferry service and receive a $21 million subsidy over seven years, but there is growing uncertainty in Nova Scotia and Maine about whether the company will deliver.
The prospective ferry operator, a joint venture called STM Quest, involves Quest Navigation Inc. of Maine and Singapore Technologies Marine, which owns the Nova Star, the ship due to be used for the service, though it is now in Singapore.
On Wednesday, Nova Scotia’s incoming Premier Stephen McNeil, whose Liberal Party was swept into power in elections Oct. 8, said he was surprised to learn after the election that the province had no final agreement for ferry service. Before the election, McNeil said, he believed that an agreement was in hand because of statements made by the previous government in early September.
McNeil’s comments led Mark Amundsen, an Eliot resident who is president and CEO of Quest Navigation, to issue a written statement Thursday saying that officials from his company have been meeting regularly with Nova Scotia officials to finalize the necessary agreements.
He said his company has also been meeting with tourism agencies and community leaders in Nova Scotia and New England.
“We remain committed and confident that we will start the service in May 2014,” Amundsen said.
Amundsen has declined press interviews in recent months and has not authorized anyone to speak on the company’s behalf. The company has yet to establish an office.
On Sept. 5, Nova Scotia’s government issued a news release saying it had reached an agreement with STM Quest to operate a cruise ferry between Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, and Portland.
Of the $21 million subsidy, $10.5 million would go toward startup costs, with $1.5 million each year for marketing over the seven years, according to the deal.
STM Quest must produce a finalized joint-venture agreement between ST Marine and Quest Navigation and obtain all required licenses and permits.
STM Quest has yet to be awarded any money for startup costs.
Tina Thibeau, a spokeswoman for Nova Scotia’s government, said Thursday in an email that STM Quest is now working to finalize those details.
“There are a number of things that need to fall in place for the ferry service to start in May 2014, including upgrades to the ferry terminal and border services in both ports,” she said. “The company, province and other partners are working towards a May 2014 start date for the new service.”
Adrienne Bennett, spokeswoman for Gov. Paul LePage, said the Maine Port Authority and the city of Portland are working with Quest Navigation to get the ferry service started. They are discussing marketing efforts, needs for additional infrastructure, and collaboration with Customs and Border Patrol.
According to the agreement announced on Sept. 5, the ferry would operate daily from May 1 to Oct. 31, leaving Yarmouth at 9 a.m. and arriving in Portland at 5 p.m. The return trip would leave Portland at 8 p.m. and arrive in Yarmouth at 7 a.m.
STM Quest, which has yet to announce prices, is rapidly running out of time if it wants to attract tour buses next summer.
Over the next few weeks, tour companies will print brochures that will be mailed to their customers. The companies are enthusiastic about the planned ferry service but need details about it, such as the sailing schedule, pricing and on-board food service, said Don Haggett, sales director for Lafayette Hotels, which owns 22 hotels in Maine,
Haggett said he has been sending emails about the ferry service to more than 80 tour bus operators. The only details he has now is that the ferry would leave Portland in the evening and Yarmouth in the morning.
He said STM Quest must have a final agreement within the next eight weeks or it will lose out on the 2014 season for tour groups. “Everybody just now is really waiting,” he said.
Scott Riccio, owner of Northeast Charter and Tour Co. in Lewiston, said he believes the ferry service will start up in May as promised.
“We have to be cautiously optimistic and hopeful that our leaders in government on both sides of the border will make it happen,” he said.
Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: