YARMOUTH, Nova Scotia — Hundreds of people gathered along the harbor of this tiny coastal town Tuesday to glimpse the arrival of an economic lifeboat – a new ferry that will connect the town with America.
The Nova Star’s horn blew as the ferry approached the terminal a few minutes before noon, sparking cheers from the crowd on a nearby wharf while a fife and drum corps played the “Star-Spangled Banner” and “O Canada.”
The ship’s arrival signaled the end of a four-year absence of passenger service between Yarmouth and Portland, the only period since the mid-1800s in which Yarmouth has had no summer ferry link to New England. Much of the area’s economy has suffered since the last ferry service ended.
This is the Nova Star’s first port of call after a month-long, 10,000-mile journey from the shipyard in Singapore where it was built. It will arrive in Portland at noon Thursday, and will begin daily service between Portland and Yarmouth on May 15.
Local officials, reporters and residents of Yarmouth will be allowed to tour the Nova Star on Wednesday morning. The ferry, which was built in 2011 but never put in service, can carry 1,200 passengers and 300 vehicles.
Although the ferry is expected to generate business for hotels and restaurants in Portland, its impact here will be far greater. A town with fewer than 7,000 residents, Yarmouth has been challenged by its small size and remote location on the southwest edge of the Nova Scotia peninsula. The ferry will connect the region to huge population bases in the northeastern United States. About 80 percent of the ferry’s passengers are expected to be Americans.
“There are 70 million people across the water,” Yarmouth Mayor Pam Mood told the crowd after the ferry docked. “Whoo-hoo! We’ll take them all!”
To celebrate the ferry’s arrival, she danced a little jig, fulfilling a promise to Maine Gov. Paul LePage.
Although there has been some controversy surrounding Nova Scotia’s agreement to spend $21 million to subsidize the service over seven years, there was little evidence of that Tuesday.
Some residents in the northern part of the peninsula say the subsidy is a waste of tax dollars. But people in the south, such as Esther Dares, who owns a bed and breakfast in Yarmouth and will open a bike rental business this summer, liken it to maintaining public roads.
“Yes, it’s brilliant,” she said of the ferry. “It’s our highway to the states.”
TOWN SUFFERED DURING HIATUS
The Nova Star’s arrival was the culmination of a four-year effort to restore ferry service.
Bay Ferries Ltd., which operated the Cat, a high-speed ferry between Yarmouth and Portland, canceled the service on Dec. 18, 2009, after the provincial government refused to continue its subsidy because it was losing too much money. People here remember the date, and the trauma.
“To suddenly have it drift out from under you in 2009 was a tremendous shock to people,” said Bruce Bishop, who grew up in Yarmouth and runs a public relations company in town. “We felt like a part of our character was taken away from us without our consultation.”
A handful of restaurants and gift shops subsequently closed. A hotel across the street from the ferry terminal also closed, and the owner of a hotel outside of town demolished half of the building rather than pay for needed repairs.
Lenn Burkitt, co-owner of Hands On Crafts on Main Street, said many businesses stayed open only because they believed the ferry service would be restored. To survive without the flow of tourists, he began stocking his store with more beads and yarn for local residents to buy.
He said some townspeople worry that the Nova Star won’t succeed because its fares are too expensive – a one-way trip for an adult will cost $79 to $139, depending on the season. They also worry that Americans won’t come to Nova Scotia in the numbers seen in the past.
Because the ferry operator, Nova Star Cruises, had a late start marketing its service, townspeople already anticipate that passenger volumes won’t be strong in the first year, Burkitt said. But he said he’s optimistic about the ferry’s success in the long term.
“Even if it’s not a good year this year, it’s a start, and next year will be better,” he said.
HIGH HOPES FOR ECONOMIC REVIVAL
Although the town proper is small, Yarmouth is the retail, fishing and government services hub for southwest Nova Scotia, a region of more than 70,000 people served by a local paper, The Yarmouth County Vanguard, which covered the event. Yarmouth residents are primarily English speakers; French is spoken mostly in the fishing village outside of town.
Lucien LeBlanc, 24, a lobsterman who lives in the nearby French-speaking village of Wegeport, said many businesses want to attract tourists from large cities on America’s East Coast.
He’s hoping for an influx of tourists and plans to start a business this summer using his 50-foot lobster boat to take passengers from the Nova Star to the Tusket Islands, an hour south of Yarmouth and home to fishermen’s shanties and summer cottages.
The ferry alone won’t revive the region’s economy, he said, so people have to take an active role in making the province a destination.
“It’s not our savior,” he said of the ferry, “but it does give us hope.”
Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: [email protected]