Less than six months before the planned launch of the new ferry service between Portland and Nova Scotia, there’s still no final deal in place between the Nova Scotia government and the Maine company chosen by the province to supply the ferry and operate it.

The province “understands the urgency” of getting the deal done quickly so the ferry can begin running May 1, said Michel Samson, the new minister of the Nova Scotia Department of Economic and Rural Development and Tourism. But in an email, Samson said the province is still working out details with STM Quest, a joint venture company consisting of Quest Navigation Inc. of Eliot and ST Marine Ltd of Singapore.

Although some in the industry are skeptical that a deal can be finalized in time to salvage the 2014 season, negotiations are in the final stages and an agreement will be announced “very soon,” said Keith Condon of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, co-chair of the Nova Scotia International Ferry Partnership, a group gathering political support for the ferry.

One factor in the delay: There’s a new government in Nova Scotia. Voters there last month threw out the New Democratic Party and replaced it with the Liberal Party.

Ousted premier Darrell Dexter had promised to provide as much as $21 million over seven years to subsidize ferry service. Condon said officials in the new government are committed to following through on that offer and getting the ferry started as soon as possible.

“I know for a fact that the new government has embraced the deal with Quest, and everything is moving along,” Condon said.

Mark Amundsen of Eliot, president and CEO of Quest Navigation, has declined all interviews. In a statement, he said STM Quest has an exclusive “bareboat charter” agreement with ST Marine for the ferry, to be called the Nova Star.

Such an agreement allows STM Quest to hire the master and crew. The vessel, which has never been put into service, has 162 cabins, two restaurants and a maximum capacity of 1,215 passengers. It is 59 feet longer than the Scotia Prince, which operated between Portland and Yarmouth from 1982 to 2004.

However, it typically takes a year to market a new ferry service to bus tour companies, and the delay in negotiations has put those marketing efforts on hold. Time has already run out for many companies that are booking tours to Nova Scotia and Maine for next summer because they need six to eight months advance notice to sell the tours, said Donna Hanson, vice president of The Maine Tour Connection in South Portland, which specializes in tours of New England and eastern Canada. Her company sells tour packages to tour companies around the country and those companies resell the packages to small groups shopping for bus tours of Maine and Nova Scotia.

“I can’t sell what I haven’t seen, and I can’t sell what I don’t have pricing for,” Hanson said.

Moreover, the delay suggests that there might be a problem with the business model for a ferry that caters to tourists and operates only half of the year, said Eric Junker, owner of Americana Marine Services, a Florida company affiliated with an overnight ferry service that operates in the Dominican Republic.

“At this late date, the validity of the joint venture is seriously in question,” Junker said.

He said a year-round ferry service supported by truckers in the winter months would have a better chance of success. But the Nova Scotia government is looking for a ferry service to operate from May to October. Such a service wouldn’t compete with the existing government-subsidized year-round ferry between St. John, New Brunswick, and Digby, Nova Scotia. That ferry is heavily used by truckers.

To make the Portland-to-Yarmouth service work, STM Quest will need to find a route for the ferry in the off-season, but the ferry market in the Caribbean, a typical target for offseason ferry service, is already saturated, Junker said.

“By the look of things,the big stumbling block is how to get the rest of the year covered,” he said.

Launching a new ferry service typically requires a lead time of one or two years, said Jeff Monroe, a maritime transportation consultant and former director of the Port of Portland. He said STM Quest will have to obtain agreements with harbor pilots and with unions representing longshoremen in Maine and Nova Scotia, as well as agreements with local governments for dock fees and approval by Coast Guard inspectors in both nations.

He said the 1970s-era terminal in Yarmouth is in particularly bad shape and needs significant work.

Lynn Tillotson, president of the Greater Portland Convention and Visitors Bureau, said she met Tuesday with two officials from STM Ques to discuss sharing space at Portland’s Ocean Gateway terminal, where the ferry company plans to have a ticket office.

Tillotson said she was encouraged by the meeting because STM Quest officials gave the impression that they were confident the ferry service will operate next summer.

The ferry would boost the tourism industry in Portland, and it would be particularly helpful next summer when several hotels open in the city, said Gerard Kiladjian, general manager of the Portland Harbor Hotel.

Anna Henderson, director of sales at the Clarion Hotel in Portland, said she hopes a deal for the ferry service will be announced soon.

“The sooner they get going the better,” she said. “But I think there’s still time if they do it right now.”

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

[email protected]

Twitter: @TomBellPortland

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