Key West Votes to Restrict Cruise Ships 

Key West Florida votes to restrict cruise ship calls
At issue are big cruise ships and their impact on Key West - photo courtesy of Carnival Cruise Line

Published Nov 5, 2020 3:06 PM by The Maritime Executive

The residents of Key West, Florida voted to adopt changes to the city’s charter that could bring an end to the city as a cruise port of call. The measures designed to block large cruise ships from docking at the famed tourist destination however face a series of legal challenges before it can proceed.

A group of local residents calling themselves the Key West Committee for Safer, Cleaner Ships, used the well-publicized outbreaks of COVID-19 on cruise ships in 2020, as well as citing the impact of the larger ships on the environment, to build support. Saying that cruise ships cause chronic water-quality issues for Florida’s Key and that the large ships were overwhelming the city the not for profit group was successful in getting three propositions added to the November ballot.

Nearly two-thirds of the voters on Tuesday approved two of the measures. This includes limiting persons disembarking from the cruise ships to a total of just 1,500 people per day as well as prohibiting cruise ships with a capacity of 1,300 or more people from disembarking at all in Key West.  Persons was defined to include passengers and crew so the two measures, which each gained more than 60 percent approval, effectively bar all but a handful of smaller cruise ships from using Key West as a port.

A third proposition on the ballot further sought to give priority to cruise lines with the best environmental and health records. More than 80 percent of the voters approved that element.

Under Florida law, the three referendums are binding requiring the city leaders to add them to the city charter. The City Manager and members of the chamber of commerce cautioned in the local media that the issues were far from decided. There already have been challenges in court and they all expect additional suits leaving the courts to rule on the validity of the efforts.

A case before the state Circuit Court filed in the summer challenges the legality of the referendums. The judge hearing this case permitted the vote to go forward even though hearings are upcoming in the case.

Among the issues to be decided is if the referendum can be considered binding on a privately owned pier at Key West or if it can only be enforced on public property.  Key West has three piers, one owned by the city, a second controlled by the U.S. Navy, and a third owned by a private real estate company.

Among the other challenges to the referendums was a suit filed by the Key West Bar Pilots Association. They argued that the measures would interfere with their livelihood and that authority to regulate the port belongs to the state and federal governments.

Local businesses also worry that the referendums if upheld would harm their business.  Key West in 2019 received nearly one million cruise passengers and with the CDC restrictions that will have the first cruises focus on shorter durations and staying closer to home, Key West was likely to be a potential port as the industry resumes operations in 2021. 

Local merchants that sell to the tourists, the trolley operators, bars, and restaurants all fear that tourists in the hotels and guest house would never make up for the revenues lost from the cruise industry. The Key West Chamber of Commerce estimated a loss of $90 million annually in direct income and 800 jobs related to the cruise industry saying as many as 90 percent of the passengers who visited Key West in 2019 would be excluded under the new rules.