Officials of Nova Star Cruises launched their ferry service in 2014 hoping to rebuild a Portland-to-Nova Scotia run that had operated for nearly 40 years, but low passenger numbers doomed the effort.

The Maine-based company failed to turn a profit on the service, which has been marked by fits and starts the last 10 years.

The Scotia Prince had plied the Gulf of Maine from 1970 until 2004, when dangerous levels of mold were found in Portland’s ferry terminal. The operator of the service, Scotia Prince Cruises, said the mold was a health hazard and pulled its ship from operation. Portland officials suggested the cruise line was looking for an excuse to pull out and said the Scotia Prince was being evicted from the International Marine Terminal.

The service was picked up by Bay Ferries in 2006, with a high-speed catamaran operating from Bar Harbor and Portland to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, underwritten by a subsidy from the Nova Scotia government. That service ended in 2009, however, when Nova Scotia cut off its subsidy.

Without the financial aid, the ferry service was reported to be facing a $7 million operating loss. The route was abandoned for four years.

PROVINCE SEEKS TOURISM

Citing a need to restore the service to buoy its tourism industry, the province said in 2012 that it was willing to spend $21 million (Canadian) over seven years to subsidize an operator. Although Bay Ferries expressed interest then, it did not submit a proposal. Two other companies, one based in Maine and the other in Baltimore, submitted plans to Canadian authorities. The Maine-based group, which became Nova Star Cruises, was chosen by Nova Scotia authorities in September 2013

The company leased a 531-foot ship that had been designed to cross the English Channel but hadn’t been put into service because of construction delays.

It found a home with Nova Star Cruises and was outfitted for daily crossings between Yarmouth and Portland. The ship, named the Nova Star, with 162 cabins, two restaurants, a casino and a capacity of 1,215 passengers, plus cars and trucks, set out on its maiden voyage on May 16, 2014.

But the ferry had a tough start. Passenger numbers that were projected to be in excess of 100,000 fell far short, coming in at 59,000 that first season. Operators said a delay in getting final permits pushed back its marketing and sales efforts. Additionally, it was unable to line up tour bus operators that first year because of the late start.

But the service’s performance didn’t improve the second year. Although the season started on time and operators invested in marketing – especially in the Boston area, the prime target for leisure travelers to Nova Scotia – the results were even more disappointing with only 52,000 passengers. Travel experts said part of the problem was the decline in the value of the Canadian dollar, which made riding the ferry from Canada more expensive.

In both seasons, the ferry service also was unable to line up a winter route – a warm-weather, seasonal service that could have added more revenue to Nova Star Cruise’s books.

SUBSIDY GONE, NO PRIVATE LOANS

In 2014, the company burned through its full $21 million subsidy that had been intended to last seven years; the province came up with another $13 million for this year. Attempts to secure private loans from Maine – one of the operator’s goals when it landed the service in 2014 – never bore fruit, despite a pledge of support from Gov. Paul LePage that was repeated in June when a delegation of Nova Scotia officials visited Maine to line up backing for the service.

The relationship between Nova Star Cruises and the provincial government continued to sour. Nova Scotia officials said in August that they were withholding subsidy payments until the company provided more complete financial reports. It also announced it would entertain other bids for the 2016 service, filing a request for proposals on Sept. 8.

Nova Star Cruises filed a bid for the 2016 service, but the province’s transportation minister announced Thursday that the new provider would be Bay Ferries, the Canadian company that had previously ferried passengers on the Maine-to-Nova Scotia route for four years.

Bay Ferries is expected to have its proposal cemented with Nova Scotia officials by mid-December.

 


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