June 18, 2018
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Report: Bar Harbor not well-suited for Canadian ferry service

Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Robert F. Bukaty | AP
The high-speed Cat ferry leaves Portland Harbor in June 2009, bound for Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.
By Bill Trotter, BDN Staff

BAR HARBOR, Maine — A Canadian study that indicates there is potential to restore an economically viable ferry service between Maine and Nova Scotia is being welcomed as good news by many on both sides of the Gulf of Maine.

The most viable scenario laid out in the study does not hold much promise for the Maine town that hosted the ferry service for decades, however. If the international ferry service is restored, it likely will come and go exclusively from Portland, the study indicates. Bar Harbor is not projected to be part of a new ferry’s route.

“Portland is significantly more accessible than is Bar Harbor from the main U.S. population centers,” officials wrote in the recently released report. A panel of Canadian tourism and economic officials were commissioned this past spring by the Nova Scotia provincial government to study the issue. The provincial government subsidized the now-defunct Cat ferry from 2006 through 2009.

The 71-page report indicates that the viable type of ferry service would emphasize a cruiselike experience for passengers across the Gulf of Maine, similar to what the Scotia Prince offered out of Portland before it ceased operations in 2004. Because Portland is farther away from Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, than Bar Harbor is, the reports says, running the service out of southern Maine “can justify a higher fare, and affords more time for a cruise experience and thus greater opportunity to generate on-board revenue.”

The longer trip also by necessity would result in more travelers staying overnight in Yarmouth — either the night they arrive on the ship or the night before they board — and therefore would bring business to lodging facilities there, the report indicates. At least one Yarmouth hotel has gone out of business since ferry service was discontinued three years ago.

The Portland harbor facilities also are in better physical shape than the ferry terminal in Bar Harbor, which needs refurbishment, the report noted. Bar Harbor and state officials are looking into possibly converting the old ferry terminal into a cruise ship pier facility.

Bar Harbor does have some advantages as a ferry destination, officials acknowledged in the report. Because it is closer to Yarmouth, a ferry could make a round trip between Bar Harbor and Nova Scotia in about 12 hours, which would save on fuel and allow for greater scheduling flexibility. Bar Harbor also has a ready supply of tourists, thanks to the natural beauty of Mount Desert Island and Acadia National Park, who could be convinced to extend their trips into Canada by ferry.

“On the other hand, Portland is a growing cultural and business center in northern New England and is therefore an increasingly attractive destination for visitors from Nova Scotia — a potential ‘reverse tourism’ flow that would add traffic to a ferry,” the report indicates. “On balance, the panel believes that the market position of Portland, and the greater opportunity to generate revenue via fares and on-board attractions, outweigh the operating cost savings and scheduling flexibility associated with Bar Harbor.”

The report also indicates that Portland would be a better location than Boston for hosting an international ferry service. Boston’s distance from Nova Scotia would mean a ferry would not be able to make as many weekly trips back and forth, and its port facilities, though “excellent,” are not as easily accessible from major highways as Portland’s are.

Bar Harbor officials said this week that they are disappointed with the report’s recommendations. They said Bar Harbor’s economy benefited significantly from international ferry service, which operated from 1956 to 2009, when Bay Ferries pulled the plug on its high-speed catamaran service to and from Canada. Local hotels, restaurants and retail shops gained customers by having first the monohull Bluenose and then the high-speed Cat ferry come and go from Bar Harbor for 53 years.

“Clearly, we’re disappointed,” Chris Fogg, executive director of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce, said Tuesday. “We’d love to see ferry service restored here.”

Dana Reed, Bar Harbor’s town manager, said Wednesday that Bar Harbor’s advantages as an international ferry port extend beyond fuel savings, scheduling flexibility and already having tourists.

The possibility of including more freight capacity on a new ferry, he said, favors Bar Harbor because of the shorter time at sea. Trucks that disembark in Bar Harbor are likely to get to their destinations sooner because they can travel faster on land than they can on a boat, he said.

“Obviously, we’re quite disappointed [with the report’s recommendations],” Reed said. “We feel there are economic advantages to landing a ferry in Bar Harbor as opposed to Portland.”

Reed said that the Cat ferry, which was geared more toward delivering passengers across the Gulf of Maine in a relatively short time than it was toward handling freight, had a schedule that was more friendly toward passengers than shipping companies. Accommodating more freight, he said, would help offset the decline in tourism business that any ferry service inevitably will experience during the winter months.

“We’re disappointed that [report] didn’t take that into consideration,” Reed said.

But according to the report, emphasizing freight transportation would be impractical for a Maine-Yarmouth ferry service because of the existing year-round, freight-friendly ferry service that exists between Digby, N.S., and Saint John, New Brunswick. A type of ferry that is more oriented toward carrying freight also would not be ideal for a passenger-cruise type of service, it says.

Nicole Clegg, spokeswoman for the city of Portland, said Wednesday that the city is “encouraged” by the prospects of restoring a year-round, daily international ferry service to Portland’s waterfront. She said the city has spent the past several years improving marine-related facilities and services on its waterfront, including its capacity for freight and passenger traffic.

“This would help get us on that road,” she said.

Follow BDN reporter Bill Trotter on Twitter at @billtrotter.

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