Can a ferry system increase tourism for waterfront towns along the Chesapeake Bay?

Right now, it’s just an idea, and not a new one, but tourism groups around Maryland are coming together to fund a study that will look at whether a ferry system could work around the Chesapeake Bay.

When the ferry would run, how often it would run, exactly where it would run, and even at what cost is all up in the air, then the answers will eventually influence whether such an idea is feasible to begin with.

But make no mistake, this is about day trips and short visits, not helping people commute or avoid traffic over the Bay Bridge.



“We’re at the very beginning, so there’s a lot of optimism but we don’t know where it’s going to take us yet,” said Kristen Pironis, executive director of Visit Annapolis and Anne Arundel County.

She hopes by the end of the year that a $250,000 study will provide the clarity. Half of the funding will come through a grant, while her group, along with similar organizations from Calvert, St. Mary’s, Queen Anne’s and Somerset counties will fund the other $125,000.

“What we’re looking at first are potential stops along the way,” Pironis said. “What would be required, say, to get from Annapolis to Crisfield. That sort of a thing. Then we’d figure out if it is in fact feasible to have this, how often they’d have to go, what the time frame would be, what the hubs would be, what the cost would be. The business model is really what’s in question here.”

The study will look first to determine if a ferry system can sustainably connect Annapolis, Galesville in southern Anne Arundel County, Chesapeake Beach, St. Mary’s City, Leonardtown, Crisfield, Baltimore and two locations on Kent Island.

Other locations that will be looked at secondarily include Solomons, Cambridge, St. Michael’s, Easton, Rock Hall, Chestertown, Chesapeake City, North East and Havre De Grace.

“We have been dreaming about something, but you’re right in saying it’s not a clearly formed dream yet,” said Barbara Sopato, executive director of Visit St. Mary’s. She said it’s clear the 500 miles of waterfront land in the county is a selling point for tourism, and feels connections to both Annapolis and Crisfield, which is about 30 miles away by water and 200 miles by car.

“Boat access to some of the areas off the Chesapeake Bay is clearly much easier and probably much more enjoyable if you can just get on a boat instead of getting in a car,” Sopato said. “What we’re really talking about here is returning to the way it was. The history of Maryland starts here in St. Mary’s County and the original highways to get anywhere in Maryland were these waterways.”

But some of those stops could make for some long trips. On a faster ferry, they still might take a couple of hours. The idea is that if you take a ferry, you’re doing it for the experience too, and so you might want to take your time on the water and go on a slower boat. But with discussions really just beginning, both Pironis and Sobato say there’s a buzz of excitement from people who are considering the possibilities.

“We think under all of those conditions there’s going to be a great deal of renewed excitement for our waterfront restaurants where we already have a lot of options for what we call dock and dine, where you can pull up a boat instead of pulling up in your car,” said Sobato. “We welcome input from anyone on how we move forward with this and as it starts to form we’re just really enthusiastic to find more ways to get people out on our waters and enjoy the beautiful Chesapeake Bay.”

“Given that we’re on the Chesapeake Bay we couldn’t think of a better experiential tourism event than getting on the water and getting to all the different destinations on the coast,” Pironis said.

The hope is to have more clarity sometime later this year, and it’s worth mentioning that Pironis has already heard from some boat operators who are at least interested in being part of the conversation.

Of course, the costs could end up sinking the whole idea. But Pironis said these discussions have already fostered thoughts about other types of collaborations between these waterfront counties.

“It is a long shot, right? If it was easy it would have been done already,” Pironis said.

“But I think really what it says to the visitor is that the county lines don’t really matter. What we really want to show off is the Chesapeake Bay. We really want to get them here and see the different things. If you think about those different counties and what they have to offer, it’s something different everywhere, and people could really have an amazing time traveling from one place to the other.”

John Domen

John started working at WTOP in 2016 after having grown up in Maryland listening to the station as a child. While he got his on-air start at small stations in Pennsylvania and Delaware, he's spent most of his career in the D.C. area, having been heard on several local stations before coming to WTOP.

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