Key West Nears Limits Reducing Number of Cruise Ship Visits

Key West cruise ship limits
Carnival returned to Key West for the first time two weeks ago (Carnival Cruise Line)

Published Mar 16, 2022 5:22 PM by The Maritime Executive

A new plan has been presented in the long-running battle to limit cruise ship calls at Florida’s popular tourist destination of Key West. Nearly two years after residents voted to dramatically reduce cruise ship calls at the port, the City Council has struck a compromise that will reduce the number of calls while still permitting all cruise ships to visit the port.

At a meeting last week, the Key West City Council read out its compromise measure which will be presented and finalized at the next meeting scheduled for April 5. At issue was the November 2020 referendum in which residents voted to limit the size of cruise ships based on passenger capacity, restrict the number of people coming ashore each day from cruise ships, and favor cruise ships with the best environmental records. While the residents voted overwhelmingly in support of the three restrictions, Florida’s legislature and governor overrode the limitations in a retroactive law passed last summer.

Key West has three piers, two of which are controlled by the city and a third that is leased in perpetuity to a private operator. Since the beginning of the action, opponents and lawyers have argued that the City Council had no legal authority to restrict operations at the private pier and could face lawsuits if it attempted to impose the restrictions. 

The new ordinance which is nearly completed restricts most cruise ships to the single privately operated Pier B facility. It imposes restrictions on the city-run downtown Mallory Square Pier as well as the outer Mole Pier, which is owned by the U.S. Navy. The city piers will only accept smaller cruise ships that accommodate less than 1,300 passengers and they will only be available when the privately-run Pier B is not in use. 

“We are happy that the city has implemented a policy to manage cruise ship operations at two of Key West's three cruise terminals,” Arlo Haskell, Treasurer of the group Key West Committee for Safer, Cleaner Ships that led the demonstrations and call for limits told The Maritime Executive. “This is a step in the right direction. However, we remain firmly opposed to large cruise ships at the third facility, Pier B, and we are planning future protests against ships which call there against the clearly demonstrated wishes of the people of Key West.”

The new rules will reduce the number of cruise ships visiting Key West from 21 to seven per week at maximum. In addition, new efforts will be implemented for environmental monitoring and regular water quality testing, along with coral reef restoration projects. A $1 per passenger fee would be paid by the operators of Pier B in addition to their current 25 percent of port fees collected from the cruise ships with the additional funds being used for the new initiatives. Further, the City Council is hoping to reach an agreement with the operator of Pier B for further reductions in cruise calls.

Local businesses have worried that the restrictions would reduce the number of visitors and tax revenues for the city. The restrictions come as the tourist destination is working to recover from the impact of COVID-19 and travel restrictions and the 18-month absence of cruise ship passengers. Opponents point out that some of the funds were used to maintain a popular downtown waterfront park and that the city will need to find other sources of revenue to make up for the shortfall by reducing the number of cruise passengers.

In addition to planning further demonstrations, the supporters of the limits note that they are closely monitoring the operation of the cruise ships and documenting any violations at the pier. “At a minimum, we expect Pier B to operate within the law,” says Haskell.

Cruise ships returned to Key West in November 2021 as the industry worked to build back operations. At first, it was smaller ships, including the 600 passenger Azamara Quest and 1,100 passenger Crystal Serenity. The first large cruise ships which returned in December 2021 were met by protestors. Two weeks ago, Carnival Cruise Line returned to Key West for the first time with its 3,000 passenger Carnival Conquest.