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Caribbean Cruising Travel News

What’s Happening In Key West

Update On Key West Cruise Visit Article

I posted a recent article about our cruise ship visiting Key West in February. Our ship gave us a warning about environmentalists that could be demonstrating while we were in Key West. For years the environmentalists have been arguing that the big ships in the narrow channel stir up silt that can cause damage to the coral reefs around the keys.

When we went ashore there were people on the pier actually welcoming us to the port. They were holding welcome signs and we stopped and chatted with a number of the groups and that is where we got the information that I wrote about.

After that article I received a number of emails indicating that I had been duped by the people waving welcome signs on the pier. The claim was that the sign wavers were paid by some local developers and the company operating the cruise pier.

Looking into it more I found out that the residents of Key West held a new series of referendums in November of 2020 attempting to limit cruise ships visiting Key West. Partly using the threat of Covid the environmentalists got several items on the ballot. Key West did vote to restrict the size and number of ships that can call on the their Florida cruise port.

Here is the referendums results:

  • Limiting persons disembarking from cruise ships to a total of 1,500 persons per day — 63.34 percent voted yes. (In 2019 the average cruise ship put less that 1,500 passengers ashore and the average cruise ships per day was 1.15).
  • Prohibiting cruise ships with a capacity of 1,300 or more persons from disembarking — 60.70 percent voted yes. (Banning ships with over 1,300 passengers would eliminate about 47% of todays cruise ships from visiting Key West).
  • To give priority to cruise lines with the best environmental and health records — 81.19 percent voted yes. (A majority of major cruise lines operate ships that are extremely environmentally friendly and have health protocols that exceed any other travel option).

Following the referendum the state legislature and governor passed a law that voided the referendum results.

Activists in Key West have fought against cruise ships visiting for years, citing the damage to the reefs and over-tourism concerns. But the new push in 2020 played on fears of possible COVID-19 spread from ships and that got the referendums on the November ballot.

The Miami Herald reported that the measures were already being fought in court with a lawsuit filed before the election by Pier B Development, the company that runs Key West’s cruise port facilities. Many local businesspeople, have also argued that limiting cruise ship tourism in Key West would hurt the bottom line of a number of local tourist based businesses. There are also claims that the money from new property owners is tilting Key West politics.

What are the economic impacts? One commissioned study reported that the average cruise passenger spends less than $50 in a day ashore while a tourist visiting Key West spends over $500 per day. In contrast another study reported that the average cruise ship spending a day in Key West brought about $75,000 per visit to the merchants of Key West and on a good day there could be two of three ships in port.

On the City of Key West’s website you’ll find the following; “In the 1999 fiscal year 415 cruise ships called on the Port of Key West allowing 597,009 passengers to experience Key West’s charm, many making return trips to complete their Key West experience. It wasn’t until 1984 that the City Commission, at the recommendation of City staff, made improvements to the City-owned Mallory Dock, making it capable of docking the new generation of cruise ships.” The city shares in docking fees where for 12 hours based on 133,500-ton vessel averages over $20,000.

My observations on what’s happening in Key West.

First, regardless of the cause, most of the passion comes from small groups of individuals. Often those involved see themselves as trying to save the world (or city or location, historic place or wilderness) from the actions of the thoughtless masses and it usually involves fighting against change or growth. Regardless the cause, there are others that will be financially impacted or suffer serious consequences and they usually fight back. The battle ground where these battles are fought is that of public opinion and fighting fair isn’t in anybody’s rule book.

Second, it always involves money at some level and who’s really pulling the strings is rarely known but usually involves a group or two with serious financial interests and resources.

Third, campaigns to block cruise ships have been waged a couple of times in the past and did not succeed. The city did start requiring cruise ships to depart one hour before Sunset so as not to block the view from Mallory Square. This time there was a campaign that was partly based on spreading fear that cruise ships would bring Covid-19 to Key West.

Finally, I was a diver and have spent a lot of time in the Keys and yes the coral reefs are an important natural asset. The Key’s reefs attract divers, fishermen and boaters by the thousands and they are a major breeding environment for aquatic life. But, they have been under assault often over the forty years I’ve been here. I’ve seen reefs buried under trash from a busy weekend of fishing and boating. I’ve seen them overgrown with brown algae that was fertilized by farm run-off from South Florida and I’ve seen them buried by sand from storm surge. Considering that the Navy operated out of the Key West Naval Base for decades, I find it hard to believe that a few cruise ships churning up the bottom near the Mallory Square pier is something that really represents a threat to Florida’s reefs – there has to be something else going on.

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