Nova Scotia

N.S. government cancels Yarmouth-to-Maine ferry for 2021 season due to COVID concerns

The Nova Scotia government has cancelled its ferry service between Yarmouth, N.S., and Bar Harbor, Maine, for the entire 2021 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Province says cancelling season now will save money on marketing, ship crews

The Yarmouth ferry has not run to Maine since 2018. (Brett Ruskin/CBC)

The Nova Scotia government has cancelled the 2021 sailing season for ferry service between Yarmouth, N.S., and Bar Harbor, Maine, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The province's Transportation Department announced the decision in a news release Monday. This will mark the third tourism season in a row without the ferry service in operation.

The Cat high-speed ferry last sailed in 2018 between Yarmouth and Portland, Maine. The service was to operate between Yarmouth and Bar Harbor in 2019, but was not ready in time to allow for commercial crossings. The ferry was cancelled last year due to COVID restrictions.

Given how little has changed with the pandemic, Transportation Minister Lloyd Hines said there was no other choice for this year.

"Currently, the border between the U.S. and Canada is closed to unrestricted, non-essential travel and that is not expected to change in the foreseeable future," Hines said in the news release.

"As well, a critical percentage of the general population is not expected to be vaccinated until summer. As a result, the planned May-to-October ferry season is suspended."

Yarmouth, N.S., benefits economically when the ferry is running. (Richard Cuthbertson/CBC)

Yarmouth Mayor Pam Mood said the decision is disappointing but not surprising, and that public safety must come first.

"Economically, we want to get back up and running, but this is just the right decision — there's no question," she said in an interview.

When a community counts on something as big as the ferry service, it becomes part of its identity, said Mood. But when that service isn't there, the way things are done has to change and Mood said the past few years have proved the resiliency of the area.

"Businesses supporting businesses, the whole shop local being taken more seriously than it ever has in the past, every single individual doing their part," she said. "It's not a perfect scenario, but it's the best we have."

Neil MacKenzie, executive director of Yarmouth and Acadian Shores Tourism Association, said his team hadn't been able to plan marketing efforts for the ferry even before Monday's announcement because of the situation with COVID-19. Like a lot of places, they've instead been looking at the markets they most likely will be able to target.

"For us, that's certainly Nova Scotia and certainly Atlantic Canada and we've already been doing that type of marketing since last year," he said in an interview.

"Although the market is limited, people were moving around and there were some tourism dollars spent in small regional markets, but nowhere near what the international visitor would bring us."

Tourism future

While the short-term focus continues to be on travellers closer to the area, MacKenzie said he and his team are also keeping in contact with markets farther afield for the time when broader travel becomes a possibility again.

"Once the market opens up, tourism is going to be that much more competitive. People are going to have very serious pent up travel demands and they're going to want to travel," he said.

"[Nova Scotia and Atlantic Canada] have a good brand in the market and I think we're well positioned to attract a lot of international visitors once the borders open up."

Company optimistic for the future

The CEO of Bay Ferries, the company that operates the ferry, agreed with MacKenzie's assessment.

"People want to travel again, and this is a safe way and to a great destination," Mark MacDonald said in an email. "But that really can't be measured until the time comes. We're optimistic about the post-pandemic prospects."

MacDonald said COVID case counts outside of Atlantic Canada, particularly in the last two months, made it clear a 2021 season wouldn't be possible, even with the rollout of vaccines. 

"We understand the need for government to provide clarity on the service because of plans and investment decisions the tourism industry must make," he said.

"We will keep the ship ready from a technical and maintenance standpoint, but otherwise try to reduce cost as much as possible while maintaining the integrity of the service."

Officials with the province say cancelling the season now will help save the government money because there will be no spending on marketing, moving the ferry to Yarmouth, or hiring additional ship and terminal crews.

Fixed costs for the service will remain in place, however, as Bay Ferries has a contract with the province through 2025. Although they are expected to be in the millions of dollars, a government spokesperson said a number would not be available until the spring budget.