July 2, 2013

Canada optimistic Gulf of Maine ferry service will resume

Eager to re-establish a tourism link to New England, Nova Scotia officials expect fresh proposals by Thursday. Will Portland be their U.S. destination?

By Tom Bell tbell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Nova Scotia officials are optimistic that an experienced ferry operator will take their $21 million offer and launch a service next summer between Nova Scotia and New England. Portland has been identified as the leading contender to be the U.S. port.

click image to enlarge

In this April 8, 1997 file photo, the Scotia Prince returns to Portland, Maine for the summer season as it passes the Portland Head light with Ram Island lighthouse in the background. Nova Scotia officials are optimistic that an experienced ferry operator will take their $21 million offer and relaunch a service next summer between Nova Scotia and New England. Portland has been identified as the leading contender to be the U.S. port.

Staff File Photo

Proposals are due Thursday.

Reviving the service would boost tourism on both sides of the Gulf of Maine, although the economic impact would be greater in Nova Scotia because the majority of ferry passengers would be Americans traveling to Canada for vacation.

Southwestern Nova Scotia experienced a huge drop in tourism after the Scotia Prince ferry ceased operation in 2004, and after the less popular high-speed Cat ferry suspended service at the end of the 2009 season. The cancellation left the province without a ferry link to New England for the first time in more than 100 years.

At its peak in 2002, the Scotia Prince carried 322,000 round-trip passengers between Portland and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, most of them Americans.

The revival of ferry service to Nova Scotia would have a significant impact on Portland's tourism businesses, particularly hotels and restaurants, said Chris Hall, CEO of the Portland Regional Chamber.

"Obviously, having the service is going to add to our economic strength," he said. "The fact that it's probably a more important asset for the Canadians doesn't change the fact that it's a big economic boost for us, too."

Last year, the Nova Scotia government offered a financial subsidy of up to $21 million to help support the service during its first seven years, for a qualified company with a sound business plan.

The province earlier this year rejected proposals submitted by two American companies with no ferry experience, after an evaluation committee found that neither met the "minimum criteria."

Officials decided to try again, but this time they would approach ferry companies directly and ask them to submit proposals by June 20. After some companies asked for more time to prepare proposals, the province moved the deadline to July 4.

In April, a Yarmouth businessman and a Nova Scotia tourism official pitched the service to potential bidders at the world's largest international ferry conference, held in Rotterdam, Netherlands.

The businessman, Keith Condon of Yarmouth, who chairs the Nova Scotia International Ferry Partnership, said he believes the province will select an operator after this round.

"I am very optimistic," he said. "I think it's now a matter of the final process."

Graham Steele, Nova Scotia's minister of economic and rural development and tourism, last week told the Yarmouth County Vanguard that "serious companies that know how to run a ferry business" are expected to submit proposals.

"I know who's on the list and I know what the possibilities are," he told the newspaper. "What we don't know is who, at the end of the day, will put in a proposal."

While the Nova Scotia government is committed to basing the Nova Scotia end of the route in Yarmouth, it has not chosen a New England port to anchor the other end, Steele said. Portsmouth, N.H., and the Massachusetts ports of Gloucester and Boston are seen as alternatives to Portland.

Bar Harbor is a long-shot candidate. A conventional ferry first began operating between Bar Harbor and Nova Scotia in 1954. In 2002, the ferry was replaced by the Cat, operated by Bay Ferries. In 2006, Bay Ferries expanded the route to include Portland to Yarmouth several days a week. Bay Ferries shut down both routes in early 2010 after the Nova Scotia government decided to stop subsidizing the service. The Cat consumed a lot of fuel, and its passenger volumes had been shrinking every year.

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