It was another balmy day in paradise when Key West, Fla., voters decided they’d had enough of the thousands of here-today, gone-tonight tourists who regularly pour from giant cruise ships onto the streets of their iconic city.
By decisive, even overwhelming margins, the voters approved ballot measures to immediately slash the number of passengers who can disembark daily as well as ban the biggest ships. But several months later, in an end-around that has incensed locals, the cruise industry is fighting back. Two state lawmakers with broad industry backing are pushing bills to nullify the vote and prohibit Key West from regulating such activity in its own port.
“I am so furious that I can hardly see straight,” said Kate Miano, owner of the luxe Gardens Hotel, where century-old brick walkways wind past orchid-festooned trees. “We battled the big cruise ship companies, and now they’re taking away my vote? I can’t understand how they can possibly do that.”
Yes, they can, say legislators now meeting in Tallahassee. And there’s a good chance they will soon succeed.
“We can’t simply have a group of 10,000 people closing down the port of Key West and holding the state of Florida hostage,” Republican state Rep. Spencer Roach said at a hearing this month, his number referring to the total votes cast in support of the three city charter changes.
The maneuvering in the state capitol has at times been both blatant and blundering, marked by dueling statistics, charges of betrayal, threats of retribution and alternating predictions of economic or environmental doom. It has fueled editorial outrage in newspapers statewide — with Roach, one of the bills’ sponsors, accused with other Republicans of trampling on democracy.
Before the coronavirus pandemic idled fleets globally, cruise tourism in Key West had grown from a single ship that docked monthly in 1969 to a $73 million-a-year business. By 2018, more than a million passengers were arriving annually in ever-larger vessels that resembled floating communities; the biggest measured more than three football fields in length and carried more than 4,000 passengers and crew.
Collectively, it all had quite an impact on this island community of 25,000, a place made famous by the literary likes of Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams and Wallace Stevens.
On streets where art galleries, fine restaurants and specialty shops once flourished, vendors hawk bawdy T-shirts and stores advertise “Everything inside $5.” Part of downtown’s historic Duval Street, which runs from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean, is now a shopping ghetto that caters to the swarms of day-trippers, in Miano’s view.
“The lower end of Duval is crap,” she said.
The cultural transformation has been accompanied by environmental changes offshore. Fragile coral reefs have been threatened by the mile-long silt trails churned up as the megaships approach and depart. The vessels also roil the bottom of the six-mile channel to the port, damaging habitat and disrupting migration patterns of game fish. Local fishing guides say they were the first to sound the alarm.
“We saw it beginning maybe 15 years ago,” said Will Benson, a Key West native whose clients pay him $700 a day to chase bonefish, tarpon and permit in the shallow inshore waters. He’s seeing fewer fish, and those he finds have become more skittish, less likely to bite. Some have left their usual haunts.
The November vote limited the total number of cruise-ship tourists allowed to come ashore every day to 1,500 — fewer than half the daily average in February 2020. It also closed the port to ships with more than 1,300 passengers and crew — about half the size of most ships that docked before the pandemic. The final charter change gave docking priority to ships with the best environmental and health records.
Industry officials contend the result ultimately will cripple cruise tourism in Key West and endanger hundreds of local jobs that depend on the big ships. The city’s coffers will take a big hit, they predict. Cruise-related taxes brought in $21 million in 2018.
The new rules will be “the destruction of the port as we know it,” said John E. Wells, another native and chief executive of Caribe Nautical Services. His firm is the agent for every cruise ship that docks in Key West. “We have 287 port calls scheduled for 2022,” ships often making a stop as they loop through the Caribbean. “Only 18 will meet the size criteria.”
The Committee for Safer, Cleaner Ships, the local group fighting the state legislation, scoffs at those claims. Key West will do just fine without the megaships, said treasurer Arlo Haskell, a writer and poet. Citing the industry’s own figures, he pegs cruise revenue at about 7% of all tourist spending in Key West in a normal year. Ships will continue to dock, he notes, although only the smaller ones.
“The goal is to make Key West the premier small-ship destination,” Haskell said, while holding onto the overnight and extended-stay tourists who are the backbone of the city’s tourist trade, the ones filling hotels, B & Bs and restaurants.
To Wells, opponents’ arguments carry a whiff of elitism. The smaller ships cater to a moneyed crowd; the big ships bring the cost of a cruise within reach of middle-income and working-class people.
“I call it economic discrimination,” he said. “That’s not what Key West is about.”
He and others say seaport traffic benefits areas far from port communities and should be governed by the state or federal government. They would prefer one set of port regulations “instead of a patchwork of conflicting restrictions in each municipality,” according to a statement by the powerful Cruise Lines International Association.
The initial bills in Tallahassee indeed covered all 15 Florida seaports. They were greeted with vehement protest from legislators loath to see cities in their districts lose control of their ports.
So amendments were tacked on that only prohibited cities from restricting cruise ships in their ports, excluding those ports controlled by a county or port authority. That left only Key West, Panama City, Pensacola and Saint Petersburg subject to the proposed prohibitions. Of those four, only Key West is a cruise-ship destination. (The state constitution prohibits bills that target a single municipality, hence the need to create a “class” of city-controlled ports.)
Lawmakers may not be done trying to punish Key West for its November vote. In a recent tweet, Roach urged his colleagues to oppose giving federal stimulus funds to ports that ban cruise ships. “Yep, looking at you city of Key West,” he wrote.
The amended bills sailed through subcommittees. One anticipated hurdle fell several weeks ago when a Republican senator whose district includes Key West unexpectedly withdrew an amendment to exempt the city for environmental reasons. She provided no explanation.
The final legislation is expected to be delivered to Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) in the next few weeks.
DeSantis, mentioned as a potential GOP presidential contender in 2024, is the wild card in this game. While a prominent ally of President Donald Trump and a pro-business conservative, he has embraced several issues dear to Florida environmentalists, including restoration of the Everglades. So far, the governor has not tipped his hand.
It’s been more than a year since cruise ships have docked in Key West. Locals claim the offshore waters are cleaner and downtown streets less mobbed. Tourist-tax collections haven’t cratered, and Miano says business at her hotel is better than ever.
Even the fish seem friendlier, Benson says. “They are more relaxed, and the bite lasts longer.”