The chances that the Nova Star ferry will return for the 2016 sailing season are growing dimmer, as new data shows little progress in ticket sales over last year’s disappointing season.

Although the company announced Tuesday that it has secured a winter route for the vessel in Europe, a top Nova Scotia official said that business plan is flawed because it calls for the provincial government to continue subsidizing the company over the winter. A winter route is needed to increase revenues, which have continued to miss projections since the Portland-to-Yarmouth, Nova Scotia ferry service was launched 17 months ago.

“The idea of Nova Scotia taxpayers subsidizing a ferry route between the U.K. and France is simply unacceptable,” said Nova Scotia’s Transportation Minister Geoff MacLellan in an interview Tuesday.

MacLellan said it’s clear now that Nova Star Cruises will not reach its goal of carrying 80,000 passengers this season. He’s concerned that there is not enough growth in passenger revenues to cover the service’s significant costs.

For the months of June and July, ticket sales increased about 10 percent this year over last. The service sold 21,871 tickets during those two months this year compared with 19,822 in 2014. Total sales last year through July were 22,746 because the season began on May 15. This year, the service didn’t begin running until June 1.

A final decision on whether to award the contract for the 2016 season to Nova Star Cruises or to seek another ferry operator is expected Aug. 17. Three other companies have shown interest in taking over the run next year.

MacLellan said the government is still committed to the service, which is crucial to the province’s tourism industry because it links the geographically isolated southern part of the Nova Scotia peninsula with the U.S. market.

“I have learned enough that I still believe that it’s a viable market with the right operational mix,” he said.

The province spent $28.5 million (Canadian) for the service in its inaugural season last year. Included was a $21 million loan that was intended to last seven years.

This year, the government limited its subsidy to $13 million, equal to nearly $10 million (U.S.) at current exchange rates, and released $8.1 million of it to Nova Star Cruises. The company has requested an additional $2.5 million, but the government has refused until the company provides some required financial statements, MacLellan said. He said the company has yet to provide audited financial statements from 2014, although it has provided monthly financial statements this year through the end of May.

Maine does not provide any subsidy for the service.

Last year, the ferry carried 59,000 passengers, far short of the projected 100,000. Owners promised Nova Scotians that the ferry would do much better this year because it had more time to market the service, especially to tour bus operators who generally book excursions a year in advance.

Although June passenger volumes were better in 2015 than 2014 – up roughly 26 percent – the increase didn’t carry through July tourist season, for which expectations were high. Nova Star Cruises released passenger data Tuesday that shows 13,341 passengers rode the ferry in July – an increase of just 2.3 percent over July 2014.

Last July, the service canceled two ferry trips because of Hurricane Arthur. As a result, it carried an average of 217 passengers per trip. This July, it carried an average of 215 per trip.

The vessel has a capacity of 1,215 passengers, but Nova Star Cruises said a more realistic “operating capacity” is 750 passengers.

ACROSS THE POND

On Tuesday, Nova Star Cruises announced that a little-known English company called Euroferries Express Ltd. will operate the Nova Star this winter on a new route across the English Channel, between Ramsgate, England, and Boulogne, France. Ramsgate is 14 miles north of Dover.

The route will give the company much-needed income during the offseason, and it will also allow the ferry company to market service between Maine and Nova Scotia, said Mark Amundsen, president and CEO of Nova Star Cruises, in a news release. The service failed to secure a winter route last year.

“With our passenger counts steadily increasing this year and a new route for the offseason, we are much closer to achieving the goal of managing Nova Star Cruises as a successful business operation,” he said in the release.

Despite securing the winter route, Nova Star Cruises told MacLellan that it still expected a subsidy from the Nova Scotia government to help defray winter expenses. That subsidy would amount to approximately $500,000 a month – about half of what the government paid the company each month last winter.

MacLellan said he was surprised at the request. He said the government had assumed a winter route would mean the ferry wouldn’t need additional money from taxpayers.

Paul Woodbury, a ferry consultant and former operations manager for P&O European Ferries, said a winter-only operation across the English Channel for a vessel like the Nova Star is unsustainable because it has too much passenger space and too little freight space to operate on a route where more than 60 percent of revenue is generated from freight traffic. He said tourist traffic typically provides a significant revenue only in the summer.

Also, it would cost a lot for fuel to move the ferry back and forth between Europe and North America, he said.

“I would be highly surprised to see the ship come to the English Channel,” he said.