Yarmouth Chamber of Commerce says premier's ferry comments are bad for business

·3 min read
The Cat ferry is seen at the Yarmouth waterfront in this file photo. (Michael Gorman/CBC - image credit)
The Cat ferry is seen at the Yarmouth waterfront in this file photo. (Michael Gorman/CBC - image credit)

The executive director of the Yarmouth and Area Chamber of Commerce says he's worried Premier Tim Houston is playing politics with the future of the ferry service between Nova Scotia and Maine, and he's hoping cooler heads can prevail.

"We need to make sure that this link stays and it keeps our whole tourism sector viable," Rick Allwright said in a phone interview Monday.

Last week, Houston and Public Works Minister Kim Masland expressed disappointment with the projected ridership numbers for the service this season, which resumed this year after a three-year hiatus.

Given the amount of money the government has spent on the service through the years, Houston told reporters last week that he thinks "every Nova Scotian should be disappointed in the uptake on the service."

Houston said government officials would meet with Bay Ferries at the end of the season to discuss the future. Masland said later that ending the service contract before 2026 is a possibility.

Reasons for optimism

Allwright said those kinds of public comments aren't helpful if the provincial government is serious about helping to rebuild the service. The ferry did not run in 2021 or 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, while the 2019 season was cancelled because the new port of call in Bar Harbor was not ready in time to receive the ferry.

Bay Ferries is projecting that up to 41,000 people will use the service this year, a figure similar to totals from previous seasons before the pandemic while sailing between Yarmouth and Portland, Maine.

Houston and Masland might be disappointed, but Allwright said those numbers should be looked upon favourably, given the three-year service interruption and the impact that COVID-19 continues to have on people's travel plans.

"Basically, we're working on a year one business," he said.

"I think this is a good start."

Businesses are benefiting from ferry operations

Area businesses and accommodations are seeing the positive benefits of more American tourists in the region, said Allwright. But it's difficult for those businesses to plan for the future with the government publicly musing about possibly ending the contract for the service early, he said.

"Every day you see so many people from away that we haven't seen in the past few years," he said.

"The licence plates — people are coming from all over the U.S. to be here."

As he has in the past, Houston expressed concerns last week about the value for money the province gets for its investment in the ferry service. The province budgeted $17.1 million for the service in 2022-23. While in opposition, Houston regularly made an issue of the money being spent on the service and ridership figures. He successfully sued for the release of the management fee paid to Bay Ferries to operate The Cat ferry.

Calls for economic impact assessment

The Tories, like the previous Liberal and NDP governments, have so far not conducted an economic impact assessment of the service. Allwright said such work is "long overdue" and necessary if there are to be effective conversations about the future of the ferry. He said the chamber and Yarmouth and Acadian Shores Tourism Association would push for the work to be done after next season if the government does not.

To make any decisions about the future of the service without complete information "would be shortsighted," he said.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Houston  said the government is committed to an analysis of the service after the season ends in October.

"The Yarmouth ferry is subsidized by taxpayer money, therefore, it's incumbent on government to analyze the return on investment made by Nova Scotians," Catherine Klimek said in an email.