Ridership on Nova Star Ferry on the Rise

Aug 15, 2014

The Nova Star ferry docked in Portland in April
Credit Tom Porter / MPBN

PORTLAND, Maine - Ridership on the Nova Star ferry between Portland and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia is picking up after a slow start to the newly-resumed service. Weak passenger numbers in June and July have forced the provincial government in Nova Scotia to give the cruise line $21 million this summer - subsidy payments that were supposed to be spread out over seven years. But trips in the first two weeks of August have already outpaced the total for all of July.

Passengers traveling to Yarmouth begin gathering at the Ocean Gateway Terminal, on the Portland waterfront, several hours before the ferry's 9 p.m. departure. On a recent Thursday, cars and RVs are already lining up to board the 528-foot ship at a little after 6. Inside the terminal, Steve Smith, his wife and their kids, who flew in from Sarasota, Florida, are chatting with fellow passengers as they wait to board.

"We actually flew in to to see family," Smith says. "But we knew the boat was going up to Nova Scotia. Haven't been there, so thought that would be a fun trip."

Smith's wife, Rebecca, says she's been researching a family trip to the province for a couple years. "My relatives had told me there used to be a service, The Cat. And I just kind of was curious," she says. "We're going to just stay overnight in Yarmouth, tour the museums, stay in a hotel and head back in the morning."

The Cat, a high speed catamaran between Yarmouth and Portland and Bar Harbor, stopped running five years ago, when poor ridership led the provincial government in Nova Scotia to quit subsidizing the service. The decision was unpopular. Locals blamed the move for hurting Yarmouth's economy. So last year, in a bid to revive tourism, the province struck a deal to launch a new ferry between Nova Scotia and Maine.

"It was a slow start," says Dennis Bailey, a spokesperson for Nova Star Cruises. In June, the new ferry served 112 passengers per trip, or just over 6,700 people. Last month, that number jumped by 90 percent, to more than 13,000 passenger trips. That's well below the numbers Nova Star was hoping to see at the height of the tourist season. But Bailey says the overall trend is positive.

"Our marketing has been focusing on the Boston area," he says. "It's generated a lot of interest. Word of mouth has been very good. Already, in August, we've already exceeded the July numbers. So it's picking up."

That's especially welcome news up in Nova Scotia, where the government has paid out a lot of money to restart ferry service.

"It was $21 million given out over seven years," says Andy Surette, who's from Nova Scotia. Surette is waiting inside the ferry terminal in Portland to catch the boat back home. Surette says businesses in and around Yarmouth hope the return of the ferry will bring in more tourism dollars. But locals, he says, also question whether the money will be there to keep supporting the ferry, if it takes a few years to build the service back up.

"That $21 million has already been eaten up in the first few months. So what's going happen from now on?" Surette says. "Everybody's worried what's going to happen there."

Tourism officials in Nova Scotia say they're confident that ridership on the Nova Star will continue to grow. The ferry runs through Nov. 2, and company spokesman Dennis Bailey promises that the boat will be back for another season next summer.