Whenever cruises get the green light to restart passenger sailings, don’t expect the big ships to have Key West on the itinerary.
Sailings on ships with a capacity of more than 250 passengers have been suspended in U.S. waters since March, finally giving the good people of Key West a glimpse at what a life without tens of thousands of cruising daytrippers looks and feels like daily. Well, the people have spoken—well, voted, rather—and they want to keep out big ships and large cruise crowds.
On Nov. 3, 2020, Key West residents found three charter amendments on cruise ship regulations on their ballots. All three amendments were proposed by the Key West Committee for Safer Cleaner Ships. All three would be effective immediately. One of the amendments will limit the number of cruise ship passengers who can disembark to no more than 1,500 per day; another prohibits cruise ships with more than 1,300 passengers from docking in Key West; and the last awards port priority to ships with the best environmental and health records. All three were voted in.
However, while the amendment favoring ships with high environmental and health records got over 80 percent of the vote, the charter amendments restricting cruise ship capacity and disembarkation numbers passed with just a small lead of 60.68 percent of the vote for the former and 63.32 percent for the latter, leaving the outcome a contentious topic among Conchs. Whether for better or worse, when it comes to the island's impact overall, there is no doubt that these referendums will have huge effects on the town’s tourism.
“We believe cruise ships bring at least $90 million into the Key West economy, along with hundreds of jobs,” Scott Atwell, CEO of the Greater Key West Chamber of Commerce, told Trip Savvy. For him, it’s a simple numbers game: fewer tourists means less tourist revenue—and big hits to the budget.
“Their absence also impacts the city where millions of dollars in disembarkation fees offset the annual budget,” he added. “While we appreciate the sentiment behind the effort, there are better ways to mitigate concerns without this draconian idea that will only hurt the island.” Atwell also said the city would likely be forced to defend this vote in court as it impacts a privately-held pier.
According to an August 2020 report put together by Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) in response to the referendums, tourists from cruise ships spend 50 percent more when visiting Key West than overnight visitors and 75 percent more than other day visitors. They also argued that roughly 1 in 20 jobs in Key West are related to the cruise industry and that restrictions on cruise ship activity will cause an estimated 4.5 percent rise in unemployment.
However, it’s worth noting that the cruise industry has been largely unregulated in Key West for decades—and the people of the Conch Republic have never been the type of people to shy when they feel they are being bullied. While the new charter amendments will restrict large cruise ship companies (at least with their current mega-ships) from docking in Key West, smaller ships are still welcome, opening up opportunities for more boutique cruise ship sailings to throw down their anchor.