BY TOM DALTON
---- — SALEM — The Salem ferry carried 43,000 passengers to and from Boston this year, a dramatic drop from past years. It was 30,000 fewer than last year and not even half the total from 2010.
Despite the low ridership, Boston Harbor Cruises plans to expand the number of round trips next year, add more service in the early evenings, keep the rates the same and offer a $5 discount for Salem residents.
“We put together a 2013 ferry schedule we feel is a little bit more aggressive and, most certainly, more convenient for people traveling in both directions ...” said Alison Nolan, general manager of Boston Harbor Cruises, which took over the Salem ferry this year.
Nolan said she was not surprised by this year’s figures.
The ferry got off to a late start when the former operator, Water Transportation Alternatives of Quincy, said it was losing money and wanted to cut back on daily service, prompting Mayor Kim Driscoll to seek a new partner to operate the city-owned vessel.
Boston Harbor Cruises came on board with little time to get ready and had to deal with unexpected engine repairs right at the start of the season.
In addition, it had to cut the season short in October due to Hurricane Sandy.
While it agreed to Driscoll’s demand for daily service, BHC reduced the number of round trips in 2012 and raised the rates.
The 149-passenger Nathaniel Bowditch offers a 55-minute ride from the Blaney Street landing in Salem to Long Wharf in Boston. A round-trip adult ticket is $27. The ferry operates from Memorial Day through Halloween.
“We wanted to put together a schedule we knew we could absolutely commit to,” Nolan said. “We understand the schedule we ran in 2012 was not as aggressive as the ferry was running in the past and did not give as many options, particularly to people from the North Shore going into Boston ...
“The good news is I think we have a full year of operating the Salem ferry under our belt, so we have a much better idea of what the market is, what the operating overhead is ...”
Boston Harbor Cruises is adding another round trip on weekdays and weekends and providing more evening service, according to its proposed schedule. For example, this year, the last boat left Salem at 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday. There will be a 7 p.m. boat from Salem on those days next year and a departure at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 7 p.m. on Sunday.
There also will be an additional round trip out of Boston daily, more weekend trips during the midday and more evening service.
Nolan said they are responding to customer requests, some from people who want to have dinner in Boston or Salem and take the boat back home.
The 7 a.m. commuter service from Salem, which averaged only 25 to 40 riders, will remain the same, according to the proposed schedule. Nolan said they intend to cover the cost of the commuter run by growing other parts of the business.
BHC feels it has a jump-start on next season with a website already designed and marketing in place.
“As with any new service, it takes a little bit of time and a little bit of money to get it up and running,” Nolan said. “We have a full year of marketing behind us, and we’ve done a lot of work with concierges in Greater Boston as far as generating some interest and getting visitors out of their hotels. We feel we built good momentum this year, and we really do believe our schedule for 2013 is attractive for people traveling in both directions.”
Nolan said they hope to have 65,000 or more passengers next year.
While praising the past operator, Mayor Driscoll said Boston Harbor Cruises is in a better position to succeed.
“They’re a much bigger outfit,” she said. “Their whole marketing budget is more than double” what was spent in past years.
“We’re looking forward to a really great future. And, more important, they are. For this to work, it needs a strong private partner, and they’ve really stepped up to the plate. I think they have the resources to really make it work.”
BHC is the largest ferry operator in New England and one of the country’s largest private boat operators, with 21 vessels and 250 employees. It runs several MBTA commuter services, Boston Harbor cruises, a whale watch, a Provincetown ferry, and a “wet and wild” Codzilla ride.
Late in the season, BHC offered a Hingham-to-Salem ride, which drew 1,891 passengers.
Tom Dalton can be reached at email@example.com.
Salem ferry ridership
Sources: Water Transportation Alternative and Boston Harbor Cruises