Key West Tries to Limit Cruise Ships Again

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Key West has been receiving cruise ships in the last couple of weeks, but that doesn’t mean the issues playing up in Southern Florida have been cleared up and done with. The island group voted to ban cruise ships during the pandemic, but the results from that referendum never came to fruition. 

Instead, the city government, which favors banning ships, has been fighting an uphill battle against the state of Florida, the owners of the privately-owned Pier B, and locals dependent on the cruise industry for their income. There might be a solution that will put some of the referendum choices in play, but that changes very little to the status quo.

Key West Sets Out to Try Again

The Key West cruise ship issue seems to be a neverending story. The locals voted to limit cruise ships visiting the island to carry a maximum of 1300 passengers and allow only 1,500 passengers to visit per day in November of 2020. 

The limitations came as no surprise. In 2019, 910,000 cruise ship passengers from 417 ships visited the community of 24,000. What did come as a surprise is the difficulties the local government has had to implement the changes.

Carnival Cruise Ship in Key West
Photo Credit: Felix Mizioznikov / Shutterstock

Key West has three piers where cruise ships can dock. The first is Mallory Pier, which the city owns, the second is Outer Mole pier, which it leases from the Navy, the third is Pier B, a privately owned port, which has contracts in place to allow cruise ships to dock. 

The local Mayor is now trying to implement limits at Outer Mole and Mallory Pier, but not at Pier B. While this will undoubtedly limit the number of ships coming to Key West, it will not ban large cruise ships from visiting. 

Instead, there is more focus on the environmental compliance that cruise ships will need to comply with. The city government will forego all revenues related to cruise ship tourism and ban all ship traffic from the city-operated piers. 

New Cruise Ship Ordinance

In a new proposal from the Key West government, the city would allow large cruise ships with thousands of guests to continue using the privately operated Pier B. It would then seek possible concessions from Pier B’s operators with regard to ship size, capacity, and frequency. A special commission meeting will be held on the topic on March 10.

Cruise Ships in Key West
Photo Credit: Mia2you /

The new ordinance does not sit well with ‘Cleaner Safer Ships,’ the organization behind the original referendum, which seems to have lost trust in the city government:

“We’ve heard again and again that the city can do whatever it wants with its two piers, but it cannot dictate how Pier B operates its business. So if the city can’t dictate terms of business operations at Pier B, then the city simply cannot operate. So long as a ship with 2,000 passengers is at Pier B, on that date, you can’t have any passengers at any city property without overflowing the 1,500-person limit approved by voters. ….I think we all know we’re still going to see the very large ships at Pier B.” Said Arlo Haskell, treasurer of Safer Cleaner Ships

If at any point a vessel with 1,500 passengers or more would dock at Pier B, there would be no traffic allowed at any other dock. Which would imply that the city would lose all income related to cruise ship tourism while it’s business as usual at Pier B. 

In fact, according to the city lawyer, the current agreement between Key West and Pier B actively encourages cruise ship arrivals, stating Pier B should: “use its best efforts to solicit and book cruise ships so as to maximize disembarkation fee revenue while emphasizing upper market cruise ship tourism.”

Carnival Cruise Ships in Key West
Photo Credit: blueElephant / Shutterstock

Ships to Pay for Cleanup Costs

The proposed ordinance would also require ships to pay for cleanup costs for any pollution and abide by all state, federal and international rules. “We need to have environmental guidelines in there and they need to be enforced,” said city Mayor Teri Johnston. 

Passenger disembarkation fees would also pay for regular water quality testing, along with coral reef restoration projects: “How do you know if somebody’s violating water quality and the environment if you’re not testing them?” 

The proposed ordinance would indeed see a dramatic drop in traffic, from 21 per week to seven ships per week. However, this is a far cry from the proposal voted for in November 2020. 

With an average of 2,500 passengers per visiting cruise ship, there would still be an average of 17.500 visitors per week—significantly more than the 10,500 in the original referendum. It will also not stop the cruise ships already visiting Key West.

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