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.

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.

Condon said there is wide agreement that the new ferry should be like the Scotia Prince, which offered some cruise ship amenities, but also carried vehicles. The Scotia Prince operated between Portland and Yarmouth from 1982 to 2004. It was replaced by the high-speed Cat.

“Make the boat part of the vacation,” Condon said. “Speed is not the issue. The Scotia Prince was more of a cruise. People enjoyed the experience of waking up in a foreign country.”

Condon said that Portland may be the best port because it’s just the right distance from Yarmouth. The 12-hour journey between Portland and Yarmouth would allow for a round trip every day. He said Boston would be more expensive and the trip would take too long.

Christopher Wright of Digby, Nova Scotia, a former consultant to ferry companies around the world, said studies show that a cruise-like ferry service between Yarmouth and New England is viable. To compete, though, it would have to offer a good-quality vessel with attractive accommodations, he said.

Jeff Monroe, former port director for the city of Portland, said commercial trucking companies would use the ferry because drivers could sleep during the trip. That would allow companies to put one driver on each truck rather than two, he said.

Because the ferry would operate during the summer, its operator would need to find another route in a warm climate, such as the Caribbean, to keep the ferry and its staff busy during the winter.

Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

[email protected] 

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