By Tina Comeau
Michael Carbonell already had a smile that can light up a room. And with the new faces coming through the doors of the Shanty Café his smile is even brighter.
The manager of the Central Street business says they are experiencing quite a bit of customer traffic associated with the resumption of ferry service between Nova Scotia and New England.
“You can’t imagine how happy we are that not only us, but the whole town is benefiting,” he says. “We see new faces all of the time. We see them on their way (into Nova Scotia) and we see them on their way out.
“It’s great for us,” he adds. “Not only for business by putting money in the till, but it’s putting our name out there and people from away are discovering this place.”
The café – a social enterprise involved with YACRO (Yarmouth Association for Community Residential Options) – also carries YACRO’s All-Ways-Us brands of soap, candles, body washes, etc. that are made by people with disabilities and/or who face barriers when it comes to being hired. Nova Star Cruises has chosen the All-Ways-Us line to be sold in the gift shop on the boat for three consecutive weekends as a test run. Their first weekend just passed.
“They’re getting ideas for the store for next season and are inviting vendors from either side to participate,” Carbonell explains, saying they’ve been invited to be on board to promote the product line.
Nova Star arrives in Yarmouth daily at 8 a.m. Not everyone that arrives in Yarmouth stays here. After 10 hours on the boat most are eager to hit the road. They’re heading to all parts of the province. But after 10 hours on a boat others want to explore as soon as they hit land and start in Yarmouth. Others who don’t do it on the way in do it on the way out.
Without ferry service over the past four summers there had been a large decline in tourism traffic in Yarmouth. Given Yarmouth’s geographic location, without a ferry travellers tended not to venture this way – at least not in droves. To the end of June this year (the latest figure that was available at the time this story was written) the province’s Economic and Rural Development and Tourism Department says around 4,000 people were counseled at the Visitor Information Centre in Yarmouth, which was an increase of 107 per cent from the same time last year.
In May and June combined, Nova Star carried 9,715 passengers. Nova Star says during July and as of the first two weeks of August, they had had 30,298 passenger bookings.
Included in these figures would be some people who are just doing a return trip and don't get off of the boat for an extended period, other than to clear customs. But they're not the majority.
With the morning departure of the boat, the accommodation sector in Yarmouth says it is seeing booming business.
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Provincially, the latest provincial room night figures are not at the ready. The May figures showed the occupancy rate in Yarmouth and Acadian Shores had seen a 12 per cent increase year-to-date over the same period last year. Provincially there had been a five per cent year-to-date increase over the same time last year. These figures would not all be directly related to the ferry service.
"We expect to be able to release the June stats next week, and then July a month after that, and so on," says Toby Koffman, a spokesperson with the Department of Economic and Rural Development and Tourism.
With a slow season start, without capital of its own and coupled with other challenges, Nova Star Cruises has already needed all of the $21 million in start-up and subsidy money set aside by the province. The money was supposed to be spread over seven years.
Yet given the choice of a ferry or no ferry, it’s not hard to know which option Yarmouth businesses choose. Although there was concern expressed by Yarmouth town council last week that not enough is happening to make Yarmouth into a tourist town.
“How’s my hair?” Craig Ward asks as he’s about to have his photo taken.
“It’s sticking up on top,” says this reporter.
The exchange is funny because Ward is follicly challenged – a.k.a. he’s bald. But what he lacks in the hair department he more than makes up for in humour and his ability to make any visitor feel welcome the instant they step into his store, Shackwacky Art and Photography on Main Street. Has the return of ferry service translated to a boon in business? Not yet, says Ward, but give it time.
“It’s not going to happen overnight,” he says, saying to the naysayers, “There are far worse things the province could be spending tax dollars on.” After all, there is economic return through the money being spent by travellers throughout the province.
Ward says being open earlier in the morning to catch ferry traffic hasn’t brought benefit to his business. Their traffic tends to come later in the day.
“Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Florida, Texas, some from California, Indiana,” Ward says when asked where people are coming from. “The majority has come across on the Nova Star. Others have driven around and are going back on it.”
Jean Ann Dougherty and her daughter Marissa came here from Pennsylvania. After arriving via Nova Star they, with family friend Ruth Hunt of Sluice Point, traded one ride for another. Making the rounds downtown streets on a surrey rented from Wheelhouse and Surrey Rentals – set up in the Collins Street parking lot – they couldn’t get over the bargain: $25 for an hour’s rental.
About her other ride, Dougherty says the ferry is still “a little pricy.” But the option of not driving around was worth it, she says.
At the start of the service many people complained the fares were high. Nova Star Cruises has since offered a variety of discounts to drive volume on the boat.
“We had a wonderful time on Nova Star,” says Dougherty. “The staff was great. The food was wonderful and it was a very smooth ride.”
The family had used the Scotia Prince in the past and will use Nova Star again in the future. With family connections in Yarmouth, they are happy to see ferry service reinstated.
Elsewhere in a shop on Main Street it is a quiet afternoon. No customers milling about. The owner, who preferred not to have her name used, says it was a slow start to the service and still, some days are better than others, but she’s willing to be patient, saying about the ferry, “We have to start somewhere. We went through four lean years. It’s just nice to have it back.”
The business owner feels next season will be a better one. Not rushed like this year’s was. With a May start-up looming, because it hadn't yet met U.S. Marine Law Regulations, Nova Star Cruises wasn't allowed to start selling tickets or advertise fares on its websites until late March. This also meant this season it missed out on tour bus business, as most companies had already made their plans for this year.
The business owner on Main Street says there will be more time for marketing, coupled with word of mouth, heading into next year. Besides, she says, you can’t make up four lost years in one season.
At Bain’s Old World Bakery and Deli, owner Nathan Bain says they’re seeing 25 to 30 ferry passengers daily.
“It’s a good percentage for us, we’re not a huge place,” he says. “Breakfast has improved, which is really ideal for us because it was a slower part of the day. People come off and they’re hungry so they’re stopping by, or they’re waiting to go back on and stop in.”
Like others, Bain feels it is going to take more than one season for ferry service to rebound.
“There are so many people that I think instantly expected for it to be 1986 again and have a heyday,” he says. “The main thing is to give it time. It’s going to be gradual growth.”
Besides, a ferry alone isn’t the only answer to getting the local economy back on track.
Bain hasn’t expanded his hours late into the evening or into Sundays, saying the business is still feeling things out and can’t afford to incur losses while doing so. The business bakes about 30 loaves of bread a day starting at 6 a.m., and sometimes earlier. The bakery and deli doesn’t do any direct business with Nova Star. Bain says they weren’t approached for any contracts, but that’s fine, he says.
“I certainly don’t have any sour grapes over it. Capacity wise we don’t produce to sell wholesale, it’s just not feasible for us,” he says. “We’re happy just to have the faces come through the doors.”