N.S. government to review ferry service to Maine at end of season

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The Cat ferry resumed service this year between Nova Scotia and Maine after a three-year hiatus. Public Works Minister Kim Masland says she's disappointed with its performance this season. (Brett Ruskin/CBC - image credit)
The Cat ferry resumed service this year between Nova Scotia and Maine after a three-year hiatus. Public Works Minister Kim Masland says she's disappointed with its performance this season. (Brett Ruskin/CBC - image credit)

Public Works Minister Kim Masland says officials with the provincial government will meet with Bay Ferries officials at the end of the tourist season to discuss the future of the Nova Scotia-to-Maine ferry service and one option could be discontinuing the service.

"That would be a possibility, yes, absolutely," Masland told reporters during a video conference on Thursday.

Masland said the year-end analysis would include examining the travel market, operational costs and the value the ferry provides to the province's tourism industry.

"The bottom line is, is we need to make sure that Nova Scotians are getting the best value and that the service is the best service for our province."

The ferry, which travels between Yarmouth, N.S., and Bar Harbor, Maine, resumed service in May after a three-year hiatus, and will run until mid-October.

'Very disappointing' numbers

The 2019 sailing season was lost because of delays in the transition from Portland, Main, to Bar Harbor as port of call in the United States. The 2020 and 2021 seasons were lost to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Earlier this month, the company announced it has sold about 35,000 tickets so far and is on pace to carry up to 41,000 passengers this season, numbers that would be similar to the performance between the 2016 and 2018 seasons.

Masland called the numbers "very disappointing."

Liberal Leader Zach Churchill, the MLA for Yarmouth, has a different view than Masland when it comes to the ferry ridership this season.

Churchill said it is "really quite a phenomenal feat" that the service is as close as it is to numbers from pre-pandemic seasons.

"People have been feeling really good about it this summer and I know a lot of people are going to be very concerned about the comments that were made today," he told reporters in Halifax.

Michael Gorman/CBC
Michael Gorman/CBC

Churchill called the ferry "the driving force" of the southwest region's tourism economy and said the region is finally seeing reinvestment and rebuilding in the sector.

The former NDP government cancelled financial support for the service in 2009, which led to the end of the run. The service resumed under a different operator in 2014, before Bay Ferries ultimately resumed operation of the service in 2016. Its contract with the province, which runs until 2026, includes millions of dollars in operational support each year.

Churchill, who noted that other ferry services traveling to and from Nova Scotia also receive government support, said it's money well spent.

"We know that passengers coming off the ferry tend to spend twice as much time here and twice as much money as those traveling in by air or by land."

Masland said there has not been an economic impact analysis of the service so far, although she said there has been consultation with the hotel sector about what the ferry has meant for business.

Robert Short/CBC
Robert Short/CBC

The minister, who represents the district of Queens, said she's met people through the summer who have traveled to the province on the ferry and business operators who have benefited from ferry traffic.

In a statement, officials with Bay Ferries said they are committed to providing high-quality service on all of the company's runs, which also include services between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick and Nova Scotia and P.E.I.

"We always approach our dealings with government partners — federal, provincial and municipal — in a professional and transparent way. We respect the investments government partners make and our employees work tirelessly to deliver the best possible value on investments which governments choose to make."

The company noted that although numbers for the year from Statistics Canada show a 40 per cent drop in the number of vehicles from the United States entering the province, the ferry's numbers have remained similar to past years. Still, the company has noted that ongoing concerns about COVID-19 have had an effect on the ability to grow business.

"Our monthly updates have spoken to the challenges we have seen in the market this year and what we believe to be the underlying causes. It is clear that rebuilding inbound U.S. tourism is a challenge which our entire country faces."

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