The operator of a ferry that will connect Maine to Nova Scotia began selling tickets on Tuesday with just eight weeks left before the ferry is due to depart Portland with is first paying customers.
Nova Star Cruises Ltd. also on Tuesday posted ticket prices on its website for the first time since January, when the federal government ordered it to remove the fares because it had yet to obtain a critical federal permit.
The prices published on Tuesday were the same as in January for walk-on passengers: One-way tickets range in price from $79 to $139 for adults, depending on the season. The rates for vehicles and private cabins, however, have increased. Cars will cost from $139 to $199 – a boost of around 10 percent. The lowest price cabin will be $79 instead of the $49 listed in January.
The two-month delay in selling tickets gave the ferry operator more time to examine its pricing structure, company spokesman Dennis Bailey said.
“We refined the operating model, and we had to make certain increases and adjustments,” he said.
Bailey said sales on Tuesday were strong. By 5 p.m. Tuesday, 40 percent of the vessel’s capacity the was sold for its May 15 maiden voyage from Portland to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, he said.
A third of all bookings were for the May 15 trip. The company’s website is www.NovaStarCruises.com.
“We are very pleased,” Bailey said. “The response has been great for the maiden voyage”
The ferry, called the Nova Star, has a passenger capacity of 1,215 people and will operate daily until Nov. 2. It is the first passenger ship to link Nova Scotia and Maine since 2009.
Bailey said the company over the next two weeks will be ramping up its print and television advertising campaign, which will be focused on media markets in southern New England.
Travel for one person, including cabin and ferry is “getting pretty steep,” about $150 more than a flight from New York City to Halifax, Nova Scotia, said Rachel Haynie, a travel writer who lives in South Carolina and plans to travel to Nova Scotia this August.
However, because the ferry from Portland to Yarmouth travels overnight, she won’t have to stay at hotel for one night of her trip. Also, the ferry offers cruise ship amenities, such as three restaurants, including fine dining and a buffet, a theater, live entertainment, a spa, casino and art galley.
“The experience of a new ocean liner appeals,” Haynie said.
Although the Nova Star was built in 2011, it has never been put into service. The ship left Singapore nearly two weeks ago and is scheduled to arrive in Yarmouth on April 14. It is now located in the Arabian Sea and is heading toward the Suez Canal.
Donald Hornung, 84, of Florida has always wanted to visit Nova Scotia and plans to take the ferry this summer. He said the fares seem affordable to him.
“Nothing is scaring me,” he said. “It might be pricey to some people. But the company is putting a big outlay of money with that ship and you got to make it back.”
Alan Miller, 71, also of Florida, said he is traveling to Nova Scotia on May 9 on a ferry between Saint John, New Brunswick and Digby, Nova Scotia. He said a round-trip fare on that ferry is cheaper than a one-way trip on the Nova Star. Still, he might consider returning to Maine on the Nova Star, he said.
“We might take it back just for the experience,” he said.
Bus tours were a critical part of the business for the ferry’s predecessors, the Scotia Prince and the Cat. But it’s unlikely there will be many bus tours on the ferry this year because of its late start providing tour companies with pricing information, said Donna Hanson, vice president of The Maine Tour Connection in South Portland, which specializes in selling wholesale tours of New England and eastern Canada.
Nova Star Cruises wasn’t able to sell tickets or advertise until last week, when it obtained a permit from the Federal Maritime Commission. The company had to provide a $2 million surety bond so it could refund customers their money if the service stopped. Company officials had not previously applied for the permit because they said they didn’t know about it.
To lure buses on the ferry this season, Nova Star Cruises is waiving the $300 bus fee. However, Hanson said it’s too late and she is focused on selling tours using the ferry for the 2015 season.
“None of my clients are interested in being guinea pigs this year, and it was getting too close,” he said. “There was not enough time to sell it.”
Hanson said she also needs to see the ship herself so she can have more confidence about its amenities and service when she sells it.
On April 16, the vessel will arrive in Portland, where the U.S. Coast Guard will inspect it. On May 12, the Nova Star will arrive in Boston to show off the vessel to local media and dignitaries. It will visit Portsmouth, N.H., on May 14 and then travel back to Portland.
Hanson said she plans to tour the vessel in Portsmouth with a major client.
“I’m taking my client on board, because she is not going to sign a contract until she sees the ship,” she said.
Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: