Portland celebrates arrival of Nova Star, restoration of ferry service to Nova Scotia

Posted April 17, 2014, at 2:38 p.m.
Last modified April 17, 2014, at 5:46 p.m.

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PORTLAND, Maine — A small crowd met a big ship Thursday at Portland’s Ocean Gateway terminal, celebrating the restoration of ferry service between Maine’s largest city and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.

The celebration heralded the arrival of the Nova Star on its first voyage from Nova Scotia to Portland, more than four years after the last ferry service between the two cities ended.

While nearly a month away from the more than 1,200-passenger vessel’s first Yarmouth-Portland trip with paying customers aboard, city officials and onlookers Thursday said the new service will be a boost to city’s waterfront and the regional economy.

“It puts the ‘port’ back in Portland,” Mayor Michael Brennan said, watching the ship roll in Thursday. “It reinforces that Portland is an international port.”

The Icelandic cargo shipping company Eimskip arrived at the port last year, spurring state and local leaders to tout Portland’s waterfront as a reinvigorated global commerce center.

Greg Mitchell, the city’s economic development director, said his department has not done an economic impact study of the ferry-service restoration, but it’s estimated that cruise ships generate around $100 in direct spending per passenger.

The Nova Star accommodates 1,215 passengers and has more cargo space than the last traditional ship to run the route, the Scotia Prince, which had capacity for 158 cars and 10 commercial vehicles. The Nova Star can accommodate 220 cars and up to 70 commercial vehicles.

Dennis Bailey, a spokesman for STM Quest, the joint venture between Eliot-based Quest Navigation and shipbuilder ST Marine Ltd. in Singapore, said the company is focused on its passenger service and would likely not use all of its potential cargo service at the outset.

Carolann Ouellette, director of the Maine Office of Tourism, said in a phone interview Thursday that the new passenger service has already generated conversations with charter bus companies considering new routes to Portland or loops that would combine bus routes through Maine, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia with seafaring aboard the new ship.

“We’ve been using this primarily in talking to motor coach operators,” Ouellette said, noting the service may have other benefits as well, including reconnecting to the province with which Maine has shared a maritime connection for decades.

She said the nature of the ship — a hybrid between a ferry and a cruise ship — also brings something new to the Portland-Yarmouth route.

“It’s such a unique ferry service that it’s an experience in itself,” she said.

Throughout the Nova Star’s first season, Ouellette’s office will look to passenger totals, lodging and restaurant sales, motor coach traffic and hotel occupancy rates as part of gauging the impact the ferry had throughout Maine during its first season.

Bailey, speaking for the ferry operator, did not have specific totals on ticket sales but said interest has been slightly stronger among passengers boarding on the U.S. side.

Through the end of the month, Bailey said, the company plans to bring in contractors to complete renovations on the ship, which needs painting, installation of the casino and other improvements before its official christening in Boston on May 12. Bailey said Thursday that he did not know the specific contractors that would be doing the work on the ship, which carries a crew of 130 people.

After its christening, the ship will stop in Portsmouth, N.H., another city where it hopes to reach potential customers. As with the stop in Portland, Bailey said no public tours are planned for the ship at either of its two New England stops before heading into daily service.

Looking ahead, Bailey said the company is locked into its Portland-to-Yarmouth line, largely because of its scheduling strategy. Past ferry services have included stops in Bar Harbor.

“We looked at Portsmouth and Bar Harbor,” Bailey said, “You can’t really do [those trips] in 24 hours.”

The ship will leave at 9 p.m. daily from Portland and arrive at 8 a.m. the next day in Nova Scotia. Departures from Nova Scotia will be 10 a.m. local time for a 7 p.m. arrival in Maine.

City and company officials were joined Thursday by dozens of onlookers who, beyond dollars, remember the previous ferry services as providing a connection between New England and Nova Scotia.

“There’s a lot of emotions for me,” said Ulla Zrioka, who worked aboard the 1,120-passenger Scotia Prince during the early 1980s after moving to Maine from her native Sweden.

Zrioka said she expects the Nova Star will succeed partly because it’s docking in a city where the downtown has added restaurants and attractions during the past decade. And the vessel pulled up to a dock Zrioka said is better than the accommodations for the Scotia Prince, which had more in common with the new service than the 900-passenger Cat ferry that ended service in 2009.

Karen Lannon, a summer Portland resident who operates a ferry service in Portland Harbor, said the ferry’s schedule will likely accommodate more shopping and dining downtown than the previous Cat service.

“It’s nice having it back,” Lannon said.

Portland was the ship’s second stop in North America after arriving earlier this week in Nova Scotia from Singapore, where it was built. Bailey said around 1,200 people — nearly the ship’s capacity — toured the ferry during its stop in the province. She said the company decided to host the public tours there because of the $21 million subsidy the company will receive over seven years from the province.

The company began selling tickets for its 10-hour ride in March after gaining federal regulators’ approval to operate. One-way adult fares range from $79 per person for the beginning and end of the season and $139 per person for the peak summer season from June 12 through Sept. 8.