By Kevin P. O’Connor
NEW BEDFORD — The weakness of the dollar is promising strong returns for local ferry operators this year as European travelers are signing on in record numbers to take the fast ferry to Martha’s Vineyard.
Michael Glasfeld, president of New England Fast Ferry, which operates out of State Pier, said the expectation is that the season that begins June 20 will be good for the ferry service.
“Our advance bookings are up over what they were last year,” Mr. Glasfeld said. “A couple of weeks ago, when we checked last, it was up 5 or 6 percent. Last year was up over the year before.”
The weakness of the American dollar is helping.
“This is a relatively inexpensive vacation compared, say, to Paris,” Mr. Glasfeld said. “Every indication, so far, is that we will see more Europeans coming here. Their currencies are doing well against the dollar.”
The U.S. dollar is currently at near-record lows against major currencies, including the euro and the British pound.
On Wednesday, it cost $1.98 to buy one British pound and $1.59 to buy one euro, the currency in most of Europe. By comparison, in April of 2000 it cost $1.58 to buy a British pound; the euro then cost 95 cents.
That makes it cheaper for Europeans to come here and more expensive for Americans to travel to Europe.
“We are seeing a lot more European visitors this spring and we believe it is because of the strength of the euro and the British pound,” said Karen Allen, director of programs and operations at the Whaling Museum.
“We see, primarily, Germans and Brits, and usually we see them in the fall. They come to New England to see the foliage. The spring visitors are new.”
She noted that Europeans get longer vacations and are more likely to use them traveling.
“This is a great destination for them. They can visit New Bedford and the Cape and now, with the fast ferry, they can go from here to Martha’s Vineyard easily, too,” she said.
With that in mind, crews are getting ready for a busy summer at the Steamship Authority, which runs ferries from Woods Hole to Martha’s Vineyard and from Hyannis to Nantucket.
“Our reservation activity is running slightly ahead of last year,” said Robert Davis, the comptroller for the authority. “We are hearing now from people making vacation plans, people who are planning to stay at their destination for a week or several days.”
The weather will determine the eventual success of the season, Mr. Davis said.
“The bulk of our business is with day-trippers,” he said. “That is very weather-dependent. So we’ll see.”
The authority is entering its second year offering a high-speed ferry between Hyannis and Nantucket.
“That went well,” Mr. Davis said. “We will offer that again. Our operating schedule overall is similar to what it was a year ago.”
The islands are an increasingly popular vacation destination, ferry operators say. There currently are a dozen ferries making the run to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, leaving ports from Boston to Quonset in North Kingstown, R.I.
The New England Fast Ferry has an advantage over its competition because it is located in New Bedford, Mr. Glasfeld said.
Beside sparing drivers the rotaries and bridges required to get to Cape Cod, New Bedford itself is a draw, he explained.
“It is surprising how much interest there is in the New Bedford Whaling Museum,” Mr. Glasfeld said. “That is especially true with Europeans. They want to know about Native American history and about the whaling industry.
“That is good for us. People stop here and then go on to the Vineyard.”
But there is a dark lining to the silver clouds. Fuel costs are a constant worry, Mr. Glasfeld said.
The New England Fast Ferry runs 2,000 trips a year, burning about 100 gallons of fuel on each leg of the trip.
The company is increasing its price on May 20. The one-way fare of $29 will jump to $32. Round-trip prices will go from $58 to $64.
“If there is a sudden price jump in fuel, we would have to pass it along,” Mr. Glasfeld said. “Our figures indicated that, for every 50- to 60-cent increase in the price of fuel, we have to add $1 to the cost of a ticket.
“We don’t expect to have to do that, though. We are looking forward to a good year.”
April 24, 2008
By Kevin P. O’Connor