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Portland Gets First Look at New Nova Star Ferry

Portland got its first look at the Nova Star cruise-ferry today. The 27,000-ton 530-foot vessel arrived at the Ocean Gateway Terminal at noon, having crossed thousands of miles of ocean in the last few weeks. After an absence of more than four years, daily round trips between Portland and Nova Scotia are due to begin the middle of next month.

After being escorted into a Casco Bay by fireboat, the Nova Star inches its way up the dock on Portland's waterfront, crew members shouting instructions to each other over the noise of the ship's hydraulic equipment. Immigration officials wait to process the handful of people on board who have made the overnight crossing from Yarmouth Nova Scotia.

A small group of people waited shoreside as the Nova Star came in to dock.

"It's just magnificent to see this ship coming into Portland Harbor," said Portland Mayor Michael Brennan. "It's a tremendous boost in terms of tourism, economic development, and it further strengthens our role as an international port."

The newly refurbished ship, which can carry more than 1,200 passengers and 336 vehicles, originally set out from Singapore more than a month ago. She crossed the Indian Ocean, sailed up the Suez Canal to Europe and then crossed the Atlantic - a 10,000 mile journey. Her last port of call was about 200 miles away across the Gulf of Maine.

The Nova Star begins operating on May 15, offering overnight cruises from Portland to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, and a day-time return voyage. Ticket prices start at $79.

The service is being subsidized by the Nova Scotia government to the tune of $21 million over seven years. It's due to wrap up at the beginning of November and re-start next May. The last commercial passenger vessel to make this crossing was the high-speed Cat ferry, which wound up operations at the end of 2009, when Canadian subsidies were cut off. Before that, the Scotia Prince did the job for more than 20 years.

Greg Mitchell is Portland's director of economic development. He expects the Nova Star to promote trade links as well as tourism. "This vessel can carry passengers as well as tractor trailer trucks," Mitchell said, "so it's an opportunity to be a trade route to support connections with Nova Scotia as well."

Mitchell expects the ship will bring about $100,000 in revenue to the city in the form of berthing charges and rental costs. "And there'll be some head taxes, on a per passenger basis, that could generate additional revenue that could go anywhere from $50,000 to another $100,000 or so," he said.

But the main economic impact, said Mitchell, will be felt indirectly, as thousands of visitors from Canada make the crossing to Maine's biggest city. In terms of tourism dollars though, it's expected to be the Canadian side that benefits the most, as seagoing American tourists set out for the Maritimes, dollars in hand.

"There's about an 80-20, or maybe 70-30, of U.S. passengers versus Canadian," said Mark Amundsen, president and CEO of Nova Star Cruises - one of those who made the Wednesday night crossing from Yarmouth. He's confident the service will exceed the 100,000 passengers a year it needs to be commercially viable.

Although no numbers have been released, Amundsen said ticket sales are going well. "We just put in a new conference center, we're hoping to attract companies that want to do conferences on board, weddings on board," he said. "This has three restaurants, it's got multiple bars and live entertainment. It's going to be a really nice voyage."

The Nova Star will be in Portland until May 12, when it will sail to Boston to be christened. Then it's back to Portland on the 14th, for the maiden voyage the following night.