Four months after the launch of the ferry service between Pensacola, Pensacola Beach, and Gulf Islands National Seashore, the first numbers are in on ridership.
The ferries – “Turtle Runner” and “Pelican Perch” launched in June, amid much hoopla and after a year’s delay. Gulf Islands Superintendent Dan Brown hosted the kickoff and used a line from the movie “Field of Dreams” to issue an invitation and challenge to both visitors and residents.
“If you build it, they will come,” said Brown. “So come; come ride the ferry – ride it often. Bring your family; invite your friends, tell others. We have what few other communities have, and now we have a very special way to enjoy them.”
From that day to August 30 there were 94 hundred tickets sold, according to the concessioner, Gulf Coast Maritime Services, whose CEO is Capt. George Aswad, heard here speaking at the launch ceremony.
“My wife’s uncle was in the Blue Angels, and we came here about five years ago to visit the [National Aviation] Museum,” Aswad said. “And I said to her then, ‘This would be a beautiful place to run one of our businesses and to eventually move here.’ And sure enough, five years later we’re very thankful to the National Park Service as the concessionaire with this ferry service.”
The lion’s share of the passes were for trips between downtown Pensacola and Pensacola Beach. What’s not included in the numbers is information on how many of those tickets were three-day or frequent rider ten-day passes.
The ferries offered daily service through August 15 this year, and are now sailing on weekends through October 31. Aswad says ticket sales fell short, but then so did the calendar.
“It was just a short season, we got a late start there due to quite a few different reasons,” Aswad says. “We had a little over 9,000 riders for the season; we need about 60,000 riders to make it viable.
“We have a ways to go.”
The normal ferry season ranges from about mid-March to the end of October. Still to be worked out is a new contract between Gulf Coast Maritime Services and the National Park Service to operate in 2019.
“And we’ll how everything works out; we’re very excited about next year, we think it’s a fantastic area,” says Aswad. “Everybody I’ve met – professionally and recreationally – have been great. It’s a beautiful area and we’re looking forward to improving and making this a viable entity.”
Now until season’s end, the ferries are running some charters and other private cruises for groups from various companies and organizations.
“We have the Songwriters’ Festival this weekend on the boats, which is a real nice thing,” Aswad says. “They’re all taking this time of the year when it’s less crowded; they’re taking charters and private cruises on the boats. That’s part of the whole operation. We’re gearing up to go right through almost Thanksgiving on weekends.”
One deficiency that needs work is the lack of obvious signage directing riders to the launch sites, especially at Pensacola Beach. Aswad believes that eventually will be remedied.
“They did put some ‘way-finding’ signs on the main streets leading to it,” said Aswad. “But I think once the construction is finished and the new terminal is ready there, I think it will be a lot easier for people to find. That’s coming out very nicely, and I think that will helps us tremendously once that’s finished.”
The plan to expand the fleet in the coming years remains on the table, says Aswad, although it will not happen next year. And he adds some other plans could be announced in the near future.
“One of them might be lowering the cost on one of the rides,” Aswad says. “We’re trying to tweak the whole system and maybe change it around a little to benefit everyone – whether it be tourists or locals. Hopefully, that will work out.”
Meanwhile, Gulf Islands is expected to oversee a planning exercise, to determine concession services at the entrance to the Fort Pickens campground. The park’s General Management Plan calls for moving campground registration from the historic lifesaving station to the campground entrance. That will also get a look.