PORTLAND – Nova Scotia’s provincial government says it is willing to subsidize ferry service between Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, and Portland, a venture that a new report says could eventually draw more than 130,000 passengers a year.

Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter announced Friday that his government would commit as much as $21 million over seven years to resume ferry service between Yarmouth and Portland, which ended in 2009 when Bay Ferries Ltd. terminated high-speed service on The Cat.

Dexter made the announcement after a five-member panel of Canadian tourism, ferry and business experts, formed in April to study the feasibility of ferry service, ruled out Boston and Bar Harbor as destination ports.

The panel, which developed an 85-page report that explains its conclusions, selected Portland as the best U.S. port to host a cruise-style — as opposed to high-speed — ferry service.

The panel said the service would likely operate at a loss for the first seven years before being able to make a modest profit.

It said the ferry terminal in Yarmouth would need to be refurbished, so it’s unlikely that the service could start before 2014. And an independent ferry operator would have to be found.

Dexter said an operator would need to have a “sophisticated marketing strategy” and be capable of providing a high-quality experience for passengers.

“I have said all along that the province would support a ferry service that could stand on its own, a service that could be successful and profitable. We now know that ferry could exist, with the right business model and the right partners,” Dexter said in a prepared statement.

It’s unlikely that Maine or the city of Portland would be willing to invest any money in the venture, said John Henshaw, executive director of the Maine Port Authority.

“It’s a lot of money and a real positive,” he said, “but there are going to be a lot of challenges.”

Portland Mayor Michael Brennan plans to contact the mayor of Yarmouth to offer his support, said Nicole Clegg, Portland’s spokeswoman. She said the city would welcome a ferry service.

Bay Ferries Ltd. stopped running The Cat between Maine and Nova Scotia three years ago after Nova Scotia stopped subsidizing the service, which brought passengers to Portland and Bar Harbor.

By 2009, The Cat was losing almost $7 million a year — a cost that Nova Scotians were covering. Decreasing ridership and high fuel costs caused the tailspin.

The Scotia Prince, a cruise ship, ended its service to Portland in 2004. The Canadian panel said The Cat could not fill the void.

Clegg said Nova Scotia is willing to restore the service because businesses demonstrated to their political leaders that the loss of the ferry service severely damaged the province’s economy.

She said a cruise ferry could berth at Portland’s Ocean Gateway Terminal. If it carried freight, the cargo could be unloaded at the International Marine Terminal, near the Casco Bay Bridge.

“It would be great if we could get the ferry back,” Clegg said.

Paul Paradis, a Bar Harbor town councilor who is chairman of the town’s Cruise Ship Committee, said he is disappointed that Nova Scotia ruled out Bar Harbor as port of call but he understands Nova Scotia’s decision.

Paradis said the province needs a service that will be profitable because its economy is suffering.

The panel’s report said that while Bar Harbor offers some benefits — such as access to Acadia National Park — Portland, with its modern port facilities, its airport and Amtrak service, would be a more desirable port of call.

“Portland is a growing cultural and business center and is therefore an increasingly attractive destination for visitors from Nova Scotia,” the report said.

Over the coming weeks, the province will seek expressions of interest from prospective ferry operators.

In its report, the panel says a cruise ferry would travel at 18 to 20 knots, with a one-way trip taking about 10 hours. Because that would be longer than a trip to Bar Harbor, the panel said, it would generate more on-board revenue and higher passenger fares.

The panel said the ferry would have to provide “a compelling passenger experience, not simply transportation from point A to B,” to be profitable.

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

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