PORTLAND, Maine — Early-season ridership on the Maine-Nova Scotia ferry is on the upswing but still well below capacity, according to passenger counts released this week by Bay Ferries Limited, the new operator of the previously troubled line.
Bay Ferries restarted the service between Portland and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, with a new, faster ship one month ago, after the last operator, Nova Star Cruises, filed for bankruptcy in Canada this April, following two years of falling far short of its projected passenger counts.
Between June 15 and June 22, the ferry shuttled an average of 181 passengers and 78 automobiles back and forth between Maine and Canada, according to the company. From June 23 to June 30, the daily averages were 285 passengers and 97 cars and trucks, and from July 1 to July 7, the daily averages were 307 people and 106 vehicles.
A total of the Bay Ferries’ passenger averages suggests it moved 5,877 passengers and 2,142 vehicles in 23 days of operation, though the actual count may vary slightly.
Although it’s early, Greg Mitchell, director of Portland’s economic development department, said these numbers are promising for the city, which charges a head tax for passengers and vehicles. Portland makes $2 per person for the first 60,000 passengers and $3.50 per person after that, according to Mitchell. Plus, $3 per vehicle for the first 60,000 cars and small trucks and $5 per vehicle after that.
“I was very encouraged to see the steady increase in activity, recognizing that June is not peak season,” Mitchell said.
The high-speed catamaran was reported to have a capacity of 866 passengers and 282 vehicles when it originally was used as a ferry in Hawaii. However, the ship has undergone renovation, and the company website states it now can carry 700 passengers and 200 vehicles.
By either count, the catamaran is considerably smaller than the ship that had been used by Nova Star Cruises, which failed to pay back millions of dollars in debt after missing its goal of carrying 100,000 passengers per year by a wide margin. The company carried 59,000 passengers in 2014 and 52,000 in 2015.
Bay Ferries is required to release monthly passenger counts to Portland’s city government, but had not originally intended to make the early counts public. It decided to do so to forestall “a lot of damaging discussion” about the business, CEO Mark MacDonald said in a statement emailed to BDN Portland by an employee, referencing a political squabble in Nova Scotia.
“We made known our opinion on what was best for the business, which was that we collectively not focus on short term numbers and give the business a chance to gain traction,” MacDonald stated. “We thought it best to release some information in the hopes that we can return focus to where it should be — on building back this business.”
The company also declined to make projections about how many passengers it hopes to carry this year, though it will release another set of averages in August, following peak tourist season.
Portland has a stake in seeing the venture go well. The Portland Development Corp. is owed $62,000 by the bankrupt Nova Star Cruises and expects to make $150,000 per year from leasing port space to Bay Ferries.
The lease originally was meant to bar the catamaran from landing in Portland on nine days to avoid conflict with cruise ships docking in the city, but the company and city have been able to cut that down to six days.
Bay Ferries said it has sold 1,200 nights worth of hotel room stays in Nova Scotia as part of its packaged trips, possibly aided by the weak Canadian dollar. But the company could not supply equivalent counts for Portland, saying it was prioritizing developing the business in Nova Scotia, which has committed the equivalent of $25 million in subsidies to the company.
“So far, our packaged [trips] are focused on the Canadian side,” MacDonald said in a statement. “We expect Portland/Maine packaged [trips] will be developed over time.”