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Key West Votes To Limit Number Of Cruise Passengers And Ship Size

two cruise ships docked at key west
Andy Newman
Florida Keys News Bureau
Cruise ships docked at city-owned Mallory Square, left, and privately-owned Pier B, right.

Key West voters approved measures that would cap the number of people who could disembark from cruise ships each day, the capacity of ships and to prioritize ships by health and environmental safety records.

Key West voters had to decide on three proposed amendments to the city charter on Election Day: limiting the number of people disembarking from cruise ships to 1,500 a day, limiting the capacity of ships that can call at Key West to 1,300 people and giving priority to ships with the best environmental and health safety records.

All three were approved by majorities of more than 60 percent.

The proposed amendments came from a petition drive that started soon after cruise ships stopped sailing in March — in the midst of COVID-19 outbreaks on cruise ships.

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The committee that organized that petition drive said the pandemic and the pause in sailings were an opportunity to reexamine Key West's relationship with the industry.

"We realized that Key West hasn't been offered the opportunity to have any input in how cruise ships come and visit us. And we decided that we needed to take a stand," said Jolly Benson, vice president of the Committee for Safer, Cleaner Ships.

In 2019, nearly 1 million people visited Key West via cruise ship — almost half the total number of tourists. But cruise passengers are only responsible for 7% of the spending by tourists, according to a study commissioned over the summer by the Cruise Lines International Association.

The referendum was the subject of a hard-fought campaign, with the Committee for Safer, Cleaner Ships arguing in favor, while a nonprofit called Protect Our Jobs sent Key West voters multiple mailings that warned of tax increases if the cruise ship industry disappeared and equated approving the referendum questions to "defunding the police."

A Miami Herald investigation labeled the group's mailers "disinformation" and found they were backed by so-called "dark money."

It wasn't the first time Key West voters pushed back on the cruise industry. In 2013, a referendum asking if voters supported a study to widen the shipping channel to accommodate larger ships was defeated by a 74 to 26% margin.

The Key West Chamber of Commerce says eliminating the cruise industry will cost the island $90 million in lost jobs and income.

The effort to limit cruise ships in Key West has already been challenged in both state and federal court and is widely expected to return to the courtroom. The owners of Pier B, a privately owned cruise ship berth, and the harbor pilots who guide the big ships sued, trying to block the ballot measures but failed in that attempt.

They argue that the city does not have the authority to regulate shipping and that the limits would violate the city's comprehensive plan.

Christopher Ellis owns Key Lime Bike Tours. He said he employs 13 guides and without cruise ships, would likely have to lay off many of them.

Cruise ships usually provide about 50% of his business, Ellis said. And many of the people who rely on the cruise industry for at least part of their income, would have to leave the island, he added.

"And then people are going to start saying 'How come these restaurants are closing, how come these shops are closing, how come it takes me 20 minutes to drink when I go out to a place for lunch?'" Ellis said. "And it's going to make Key West less desirable. Not more desirable."

Nancy Klingener was WLRN's Florida Keys reporter until July 2022.
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