Bay Ferries is still hoping to see The Cat ferry sail this year, but the company has had to cancel another round of reservations, this time for sailings purchased up to July 18.
“All parties – our company, the province, the town of Bar Harbor, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and many others – are working hard to ensure there is service this summer,” Rhonda Latter, Bay Ferries Director of Corporate Services said Friday morning, June 21, prior to Bay Ferries’ issuing its latest media release about reservation cancellations. Originally June 21 had been targeted as a possible start-up date.
The Cat ferry was leaving South Carolina on Friday to head to Yarmouth. It is slated to arrive on Sunday, June 23, and will remain in Yarmouth until a season starts. But there is concern being expressed by many over when, or if, there will be a season.
Bay Ferries is not setting a target date for a season start. For now it is making reservation cancellations in increments. A few weeks ago the company said the earliest it anticipated sailings to start was “mid-summer.” It is still saying this. “Progress will be continually assessed and the company will communicate directly with its customers and the public once further parameters are known,” Bay Ferries said in a June 21 media release.
Bay Ferries officially decided last year to make the move from Portland to Bar Harbor for its U.S. port to tap into the robust tourism market and to save operating costs with a shorter crossing. It also said there were customs requirements on the horizon for Portland that would have made staying there costly.
Bar Harbor is not new to Bay Ferries – it sailed between there and Yarmouth for 13 seasons from 1997 to 2009. Upgrades were needed for the terminal, last used in 2009, in order to operate this year. The past three years Bay Ferries has sailed between Portland and Yarmouth.
Speaking with the media on June 20, Business and Tourism Minister Geoff MacLellan said U.S. Customs and Border Services has yet to issue a permit for the Bar Harbor facility that is under construction. He said the process could still take months to work out.
In an email response to the Tri-County Vanguard Thursday evening, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) spokesperson Michael McCarthy said it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the process is ongoing.
“I disagree with any assertion that CBP’s facility requirements are delaying the project,” he said. “Since discussions began, CBP has been transparent and consistent in communicating its requirements. CBP has been clear that facility projects of this nature and scope generally take 12-18 months to complete from design to construction.
“We are still well within that timeframe given that Bay Ferries had yet to obtain a lease for the ferry site, nor had the town of Bar Harbor purchased the ferry site from the state of Maine, until February 2019,” he added. Still, McCarthy said all sides are working “to facilitate this project as expeditiously as possible.”
“All sides are working closely together on this project and it is a top priority for CBP’s project management team,” he said.
Asked if any extra work would have been required in Portland this season had Bay Ferries stayed there while work was underway in Bar Harbor, McCarthy said, “CBP offered to provide service for the 2019 and 2020 ferry seasons in Portland, as long as there were funded plans to provide a compliant facility, at either location, in advance of the 2021 season.”
The lease between the City of Portland and Bay Ferries expired on Dec. 31. With delays in Bar Harbor, largely caused by a 30-day US government shutdown, Bay Ferries went back to the city asking if it could remain for another year. But the city said that ship had sailed. It had committed the space used by Bay Ferries for other uses.
As it cancels reservations, Bay Ferries is telling travellers they can be rerouted to the Fundy Rose service that sails between Saint John, N.B. and Digby. N.S. On Friday morning, Latter said about 50 per cent of the passengers had taken up that offer.
In addition to the $8.5 million the province and Bay Ferries are spending on ferry terminal renovations in Bar Harbor, this year the province budgeted $13.8 million for the operation of the service.
There will still be fixed costs even if the ship is not in operation. The company has lease agreements with the terminals in Yarmouth and Bar Harbor. There is staffing still in place.
“We have variable costs – the biggest being fuel – which we only incur when the ship is in operation,” Latter said. “In a circumstance like this, we make every effort to control the fixed costs as much as possible; however, we do so in a way which recognizes that we must keep our ship’s crew and labour force intact. The short answer is we attempt to save cost anywhere we can while keeping the operation intact and ready to go.”
Asked if, or how, the service is being marketed given the ongoing situation, Latter said, “Marketing of this service continues but we have held back on major initiatives until we have clarity on the start date.”
The absence of ferry service will have an impact on the province’s tourism numbers, but it is in Yarmouth where an absence will be felt the hardest. Last year the Yarmouth and Acadian Shores region led the province in tourism growth, having sold 72,000 room nights that were mostly attributed to the ferry service and the filming of The Lighthouse film. The growth represented a nine per cent increase from the previous year.
The province of Nova Scotia has hired former U.S. ambassador David Wilkins to lobby for the ferry service and to try and help speed up the regulatory process.