The operator of the ferry between Portland and Nova Scotia is ending its season early and offering refunds to 650 passengers who have already booked tickets on the canceled runs. Despite the setback, a Nova Scotia official on Monday said the government is working to assure the service operates next year and is sending its top economic development officer to Maine this month to meet with Gov. Paul LePage to explore how Maine can provide some financial support.

“We’re committed to a long-term, successful ferry service on this route,” said Sarah Levy MacLeod, spokesperson for the Nova Scotia Department of Economic and Rural Development and Tourism.

The ferry service between Nova Scotia and Portland was restored this May after a four-year hiatus. But it has been plagued with problems that have resulted in lower-than-expected passenger counts and depleted revenue. The Nova Scotia government has given the ferry operator, Nova Star Cruises Ltd, $21 million this year, the total subsidy amount that was expected to be handed out over a seven-year period to restore ferry service. The service is considered an important investment for the tourism industry in Nova Scotia.

Michel Samson, the minister of the Nova Scotia Department of Economic and Rural Development and Tourism, has requested to meet with LePage in Portland on Sept. 29. Maine officials are looking for the best way to accommodate Samson’s request, said Doug Ray, spokesman for the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development.

“We remain committed to doing all we can to help the company secure an operating line of credit,” he said.

Last year LePage pledged to help the company secure a $5 million line of credit, but it has yet to obtain a line of credit from a Maine bank. That issue is expected to be the focus of the Sept. 29 discussions. Nova Star Cruises Ltd is a joint venture between ST Marine of Singapore and Quest Navigation of Eliot.

The ferry, the Nova Star, which operates daily round-trip service, will make its final trip from Portland on Columbus Day, Oct. 13, and arrive in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, the following morning. The original final date of sail had been scheduled for Sunday, Nov. 2.

The ferry operator is contacting 650 people who have made reservations after Oct. 13 to advise them of the change in schedule. The company said it will provide a full refund. In addition, all affected passengers will have the opportunity to re-book the same reservation and travel free between now and Oct. 13, or save 50 percent on a reservation to travel during the 2015 sailing season.

“We are sorry for any inconvenience the shortened season will have on our passengers,” said Mark Amundsen, president and CEO, Nova Star Cruises, in a news release. “For the long-term success of the service, we have decided to end our first season earlier than planned and will focus our efforts on building business for next year.”

The company said it’s discussing with the Nova Scotia government the appropriate start and end dates for the 2015 season. After it arrives in Yarmouth on Oct. 14, the ship will temporarily lay-up in the harbor while the company searches for a winter route for the ferry or an alternate lay-up facility.

A SEASON OF FITS AND STARTS

Before the ferry season began, the company had predicted it would carry at least 100,000 passengers. To date, it has carried 45,000 passengers, the company said in a news release.

Before the Labor Day weekend, the company said it was pleased that more than 20,000 people had booked reservations to travel in August. But that level wasn’t nearly enough to sustain the Scotia Prince, a ferry that traveled the same route from 1982 to 2004, according to Henk Pols of Cape Elizabeth, former president of Prince of Fundy Cruises, which operated the Scotia Prince. He said the Scotia Prince carried about 40,000 passengers in August, the peak month of the tourist season. He said his ferry company, which did not receive a subsidy, could not have survived selling just 20,000 tickets in August.

In his view, the decision by Nova Star to shorten the season by three weeks is “very rational” because there is no tourist traffic to Nova Scotia that late in the fall season, an opinion echoed by Marilynne Mann, who teaches tourism management at Husson College. Mann said the tourism season in Maine typically ends after Columbus Day and that Nova Star officials were mistaken to schedule trips into November.

She said it appears the company had decided it’s better to shorten the season and refund passengers rather than lose money each time the ferry crosses the Gulf of Maine. The ship burns about $40,000 worth of fuel per day and operates with a crew of about 120 people. It crosses the Gulf of Maine twice each day, with each leg taking about 10 hours.

Mann said the company’s offer of a full refund plus options for free or reduce travel is “reasonable” and she doubts the company will get much negative feedback from affected customers.

Nova Star Cruises began the service in May after not being allowed to market its service or sell tickets until late March, when it finally obtained a required federal permit. The company missed deadlines to win business this year with major bus tour companies, which typically book their tours a year in advance.

The ferry will carry 23 motor coach tours before this season ends; it has already booked 32 tours for 2015, Amundsen said.

However, the decision to cancel trips will hurt the ferry’s credibility with tour operators, said Darrell Bryan, president of Clipper Vacations, which operates a ferry between Seattle and Victoria, British Columbia. He said the decision to cancel sailings could be interpreted as a sign that the ferry operators are cutting their losses and probably won’t return next year.

Officials at Nova Star Cruises, however, said that passenger feedback and ridership numbers indicate there is a growing market for a cruise-ferry service between Nova Scotia and Maine.

“We have also learned a lot about the market for our service and will work to make adjustments to our offering and schedule for the long-term viability of the service,” Amundsen said.

In the interim, the company needs to find a winter route for the ferry, said Bryan, such as southern Europe or the Caribbean. Winter service is especially important if the company is making expensive monthly payments to the ship’s owner ST Marine, Bryan said, which is likely.

“When you start in a hole like that, it’s hard to get out of it,” he said.

Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at

[email protected]

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