The operator of the ferry service planned between Portland and Nova Scotia has yet to apply for two federal permits that it needs before it can sell tickets or sail from a U.S. port, but company officials maintain that the service is still on track for a May 1 launch.
Nova Scotia’s government announced on Feb. 27 that it will provide $2 million to Nova Star Cruises Ltd. so it can clear U.S. regulatory hurdles and start advertising and selling tickets for its ferry between Portland and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.
But on Friday, an official with the U.S. Federal Maritime Commission told the Portland Press Herald that the commission has yet to receive applications from the ferry operator for two permits.
Karen Gregory, secretary of the commission, said it has been working diligently with Nova Star Cruises since December on the regulatory requirements.
She said the commission is still waiting for applications for a “performance certificate,” to show that the operator has the financial ability to refund customers’ money if crossings are canceled, and a “casualty certificate,” to show proof of liability coverage for the death or injury of passengers.
The coverage amount is based on the number of passenger accommodations on the vessel.
The permits are required for passenger ships embarking from U.S. ports that have berth or stateroom accommodations for at least 50 passengers.
The Nova Star has 163 cabins and capacity for 1,215 passengers.
Time is running out for the May 1 launch date.
According to the maritime commission’s regulations, applications for performance certificates must be submitted at least 60 days before an operator arranges, offers, advertises or provides any water transportation or tickets for a cruise embarking from a U.S. port.
An application for a casualty certificate must be submitted at least 60 days before an operator sails from a U.S. port.
If those deadlines hold, the ferry will miss the May 1 launch date.
However, Dennis Bailey, a spokesman for Nova Star Cruises, said the maritime commission’s staff has told the company that the permits will be fast-tracked for approval because the commission has already had a chance to review a “draft” application.
“They told us they will expedite us when they get the full application, and we are working to get that in as soon as possible,” he said.
PROVINCE DIDN’T KNOW
Gregory, with the maritime commission, would not say whether Nova Star Cruises’ application will be expedited. Instead, she issued a written statement that said many applications are processed in well under 60 days.
“But the commission cannot complete its review until Nova Star submits evidence of financial responsibility, as required by U.S. statutory law,” she said.
Michel Samson, Nova Scotia’s minister of economic and rural development and tourism, told CBC News that the province was unaware of U.S. permit requirements.
“The Nova Scotia government is not in the business of running international ferries, we never have been. So for us to say, ‘They should have known’ would be on the basis that we had knowledge of this – we didn’t,” he said.
Samson said he is hopeful that the service will begin May 1, even though that leaves little time for passengers to make plans and buy tickets.
“We knew there would be challenges along the way. We’re witnessing those challenges right now,” he said.
The province has agreed to give the ferry operator $21 million over seven years to subsidize the service.
The latest agreement allows Nova Star Cruises to use $2 million of that $21 million commitment to post a bond with the Federal Maritime Commission.
To date, the province has provided nearly $6.8 million to the company.
Nova Star Cruises says the ferry will offer daily service between Portland and Yarmouth from May 1 to Oct. 31 each year.
Because the operator can’t advertise prices, it’s at risk of losing travelers who are already making vacation plans for this summer.
The ferry has already missed the season for national companies that offer charter bus tours of Nova Scotia.
Those companies have already printed their marketing materials for their tour offerings for the season.
Given the company’s late start for marketing and selling tickets, some potential customers fear that the service won’t sell enough tickets to stay in business. “I want to sail. I want to do it. Money is no object,” said Gerry Tetrault of Westfield, Mass., who was a frequent traveler on the Scotia Prince, which operated between Portland and Yarmouth from 1982 to 2004. “I am worried about the reliability of the service. What’s the deal? I am very frustrated.”
Stewart Chiron, a cruise industry expert based in Miami, said he is skeptical that Nova Star Cruises will win approval from federal regulators to begin service on May 1.
And even if the company gets its permits, he said, it may not be able to start the service in May because it is so far behind in sales and marketing.
“How many reservations will they need before they can start?” he asked. “Right now, we are within 60 days, and we have zero.”
Bailey said the company believes the service will be successful this season because the vessel itself will be a huge draw.
The Nova Star, built in 2011, combines the functionality of a ferry with the amenities of a cruise ship.
The ship, which is now in Singapore in the shipyard that built it, is scheduled to leave Singapore in mid-March and arrive in Boston a month later.
The company will hold the ship’s christening ceremony in Boston to draw as much media attention as possible, Bailey said.
Table games and 70 slot machines will be installed on the ship while it’s in Boston. The ship is expected to stop in Portsmouth, N.H., en route to Portland.
On Wednesday, the Portland City Council’s Housing and Community Development Committee will review proposed terms for leasing the city-owned Ocean Gateway terminal to Nova Star Cruises. The terms have not been made public.
Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: