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WLRN Connects: Reopening And The Reliance On Tourism In The Keys

There’s a lot of talk about the new normal, but what does that mean in a place where the old normal had changed so much already?

The Florida Keys closed for two months to protect itself from the pandemic. Now the Keys is reopened and starting to see crowds — and there's lots of debate about whether it wants to return to that old normal.

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We heard from people up and down the chain of islands on this week's WLRN Connects.

The Keys has had a love-hate relationship with tourism. The love is because it's the primary industry — responsible for almost half the jobs. More than 5 million people came to the Keys as tourists in 2018. That's for a county with a population of 75,000. For every person who calls the Keys home, there are about 65 tourists — though of course that's not all at once.

And the hate from the traffic, trash and high real estate prices those tourists can import.

Samantha and Tim Arce are both Keys natives who are raising their family in the Upper Keys. Samantha works as a bartender while Tim is a fishing guide.

Her employer stayed open and was kept going by locals during the tourism shutdown. But Tim's fishing clients were shut out and the shutdown was at the same time as tarpon season, which provides about half their yearly income.

Tim's business is starting to pick back up now.

"I'm hearing from lots of clients that want to come back. Everybody is just a little scared there. They're watching the news and seeing the numbers go up in South Florida and they're a little hesitant to travel," he said. "But the phone is ringing. There's heavy interest. Everybody is just being very safe. Being very guarded is probably the smart thing to do. The book is definitely filling up, which is nice. And the marina as a whole. The boats are definitely seeing an uptick, but we're into the dolphin season now. That's a busy time of year for us guides and off-shore guides as well."

Arce says he's noticed a change on the water since the shutdown.

"I don't want to blame everything on cruise ships, it has been definitely a noticeable lack of debris and trash in the water out in the Gulf Stream. It could be purely for [pure] coincidence, but it's pretty staggering how much less garbage we're seeing off shore. It's really refreshing."

Sandy Moret runs Florida Keys Outfitters. He stayed open when the Keys were closed to help supply local fishermen with gear and has seen his business pick back up with the re-opening.

But he says he doesn't see the Keys going back to the old normal.

"I think we're all in for a new normal. I think the old school or the old traditions in this country and globally are going to be changing. I don't think there's any way we're going to ignore it. You can't wall the place off. You can't restrict people from travel. One person comes on the plane and they come in to town or go toward other town. And you have some outbreaks," he said.

"The world is changing. And the only way we're going to combat this is if cooperation, science, springing the science to the forefront. Coming up with some way to hopefully prevent it, some way to cure it once it occurs."

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Joy Nulisch is director of Information Technology for the Monroe County School District and a Key West native. She's not directly reliant on tourism, but she knows it helps pay the property taxes and sales taxes that make the schools run.

"I love Key West and I love for everyone to come and visit. I mean, I get it. That's why I'm still here," she said. 

But she also sees the need for change.

"I think that there's an opportunity now to make sure that we're slowing down a bit. Maybe not as slow as when I was a kid. But taking this opportunity to make sure that the experience is valuable and not about the numbers, but the quality experience that everyone has."

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Even before the Keys closed to all non-essential visitors, cruise ship passengers stopped coming to Key West. Cruise ships haven't sailed since mid-March and Keys residents will decide whether to limit the size and capacity of cruise ships that call at the island — and also whether to prioritize those ships by their health and safety records. A petition drive got enough signatures to put these questions on the November ballot.

Key West gets about 2 million visitors a year and somewhere around half of those are getting here by cruise ship. It's nowhere close to half the economic value of tourism but it is important to some businesses.


Kate Miano owns the Gardens Hotel in Key West. She says she's interested in seeing a change in the tourism industry — especially around cruise ships. She supports the charter amendments that will be on the November ballot that would limit cruise ship passengers, the capacity of ships and prioritize them by their health and environmental safety records.

"The big ships count for more than 50 percent of our visitors. But they really don't contribute much at all to our economy," she said. "I think people absolutely are looking for change. We welcome people to come to us. But we also have to protect the environment. And the reason people do come here, a big part of that is, our waters," Miano said.

Sopaya Ngov and her husband own Blue Sophia Jewelers in Key West. She estimates more than half her income comes from cruise ship passengers. She says she doesn't understand the campaign to limit cruise ships.
"They just come a for a couple hours. They enjoy around the area, Wall Street, Greene Street, walk around. And then by the end of the day, they're all going back," she said.

"I don't see any effect for whoever does not work close to the Wall Street area. Why would it bother them? They just come and spend the money. And of course, a lot of the people work there, they all depend on those [cruise passengers]."

Kristen Onderdonk owns three restaurants in Key West, two of them off of Duval Street. She's always relied on locals.

"We've really been blessed to gain our success through the support of our locals during season and off season. And during this whole quarantine, they stuck with us," she said.

Re-opening to tourists has brought more income — but also some new challenges.

"Business has picked up. We're still significantly down, of course. Unfortunately, we're getting a lot of disrespect. A lot of those tourists right now are being very difficult, very disobedient, disrespectful," Onderdonk said regarding patrons appetites to follow mask and social distancing rules. "It's just kind of hard right now after what our staff has gone through to keep us at the utmost safety and our reputation and everything."

Paul Menta runs a rum distillery that is not far from where cruise ships dock. He says he doesn't get a lot of business from the cruise passengers — maybe because they're not onshore long enough.

He said it's not just cruise-reliant businesses that are having to make changes because of the pandemic.

"A lot of this slowdown without the cruise ships being mentioned is also due to COVID. And we have a lot of just Florida residents driving. And you have to remember, we're losing all of our international travelers, which are huge for me. June, July and August are actually huge down here because of the international traveling and the people going around."