Advance bookings on the ferry between Maine and Canada are up significantly compared to last year, as the passenger service starts a second season under new ownership.

Mark MacDonald, president of Prince Edward Island-based Bay Ferries Ltd., said the company’s advance ticket sales are up at least five-fold from 2016. Bay Ferries took over the contract for service between Portland and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, from the Nova Scotia provincial government in 2016 after two years of poor performance by Nova Star Cruises.

The company’s analysis is based on sales between January and the end of last month, MacDonald said. It’s not a fair apples-to-apples comparison because sales for the ferry got off to a late start last year, but still bodes well for the operation, he said.

“We do take it as an extremely encouraging sign,” MacDonald said.

If high ticket sales hold, the service could reach the kind of passenger volumes it had before it was canceled in 2009 after requesting more government subsidies to offset losses from declining passenger bookings.

“When we look at what we are seeing right now, historically, it tracks to 2007-2008 time frame on service. In those years we were carrying 90,000-100,000 passengers a year,” MacDonald said. He cautioned that the company isn’t making that extrapolation now.

Last year, the ferry carried about 35,500 passengers, roughly 15,000 fewer than its predecessor, the Nova Star. So far, early ticket sales account for about a third of last season’s passengers, MacDonald said.

Typically, early sales only make up 10-15 percent of annual revenue, he added. People are more likely now to book closer to the departure date, even planning their trip around the weather.

“The conventional wisdom in the industry these days is that the booking window is shortening, people are doing it spur of the moment without months and months of planning,” MacDonald said.

“We are encouraged to see early season bookings the way we are, recognizing there are a large number of people who will book later.”

LONGER SEASON

The high-speed Cat ferry is very popular with passengers, according to a survey conducted for Bay Ferries after last season. MacDonald said of the roughly 3,000 passengers that responded to the 20-minute survey, 93 percent said their service met or exceeded expectations and 96 percent said they would recommend it to a friend.

“We are in our second year of operation, people are gaining confidence in the predictability of the operation,” he said. “We think there has been a really strong customer response to the product.”

A longer sailing season may also boost sales. Portland City councilors voted in late April to extend the ferry’s season by two weeks, May 31 to Oct. 15. The service didn’t start running until mid-June last year. The ferry will run five days a week through the end of June, then six days a week until the end of July and seven days a week in August and early September, then back to five days through the rest of September and four days a week until the end of the season.

The high-speed Cat can carry up to 700 passengers and about 200 passenger vehicles. The crossing between Portland and Yarmouth takes about 51/2 hours, half the time of the Nova Star, which was larger and had more amenities.

The Nova Scotia government has a 10-year deal with Bay Ferries for the service, and provided $19.6 million to subsidize its first two seasons along with $4.1 million in startup costs and $9.1 million to refit the ferry, according to the Chronicle Herald in Halifax. Those subsidies have been attacked by Conservative Party opposition leader Jamie Baillie who said in January he would scrap or renegotiate the contract if his party wins provincial elections later this month.

Peter McGuire can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

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