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Key Westers Launch Campaign For 'Safer, Cleaner' — And Smaller — Cruise Ships

Mark Hedden
Special to WLRN
The last cruise ship leaves Key West March 14. City officials say they don't know when the big ships will return.

About 2 million people a year visit Key West — and almost half of them get there on cruise ships. With the industry on pause due to the coronavirus pandemic, some folks on the island are working on a reset.

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A group called the Key West Committee for Safer, Cleaner Ships has started a petition drive. They need 1,600 signatures from Key West voters by June 1 to get three proposed charter amendments on the Aug. 18 ballot.

The group is seeking amendments to the Key West city charter that would limit the number of cruise ship visitors to the island to 1,500 a day, stop ships with a capacity of more than 1,300 passengers from disembarking, and give priority to ships with the best environmental and health safety records.

A study for Monroe County's Tourist Development Council found that the 2 million visitors to Key West spent a total of $1.1 billion in 2018. The most recent study of cruise ship visitors to Key West is from 2005 and found that passengers spent, on average, $31.10 in Key West — an amount that would translate to $42.34 today.

Key West received more than 900,000 cruise ship passengers in the last fiscal year; that average spending translates to about $38 million — a small portion of total tourist spending.

'Mostly my main income'

But for some businesses, the cruise ships matter a lot. Mei Li Ellis estimates that cruise passengers make up 65 to 75 percent of her business at the Key Lime Pie Bakery and Coconut Factory, within a few blocks of two cruise ship docks.

"When the cruise ship comes in and they walk past my store, even if they don't stop, when they come on the way back to the cruise ship they will stop at my store and get a piece of pie and get some souvenirs," she said. "And I will have a good rush hour, one or two hours, and that's mostly my main income."

Ellis says her store — and the seven people who work there — wouldn't make it without the big ships that bring thousands of people at a time to the island.

Evan Haskell, president of the Safer, Cleaner Ships committee, said the benefits of large cruise ships aren't worth the possibility of a ship causing a coronavirus outbreak on the island — which has limited medical capacity, and relies on its reputation as a safe tourist destination.

"On our peak days over the last year it would be 10 to 12,000 people focused on the downtown corridor," he said. "With COVID 19 and this period of pandemic, those masses, those sheer numbers seem exceptionally risky."

'Looking for oases around the world'

He said businesses in Key West, like everywhere, will need to transition to a new normal.

"The future tourist is going to be looking for oases around the world, places that are less crowded," he said.

Key West port officials say they don't have any confirmed dates on when cruise ships could return to the island, but said it would be August at the earliest.

If the petition drive is successful, it will not be the first time Key West voters have been asked to weigh in on the future of the cruise industry on the island. In 2013, the city held a binding referendum on whether to conduct a study on the feasibility of widening the ship channel to accomodate the larger cruise ships coming on line. The measure failed by almost 3 to 1.