Key West’s Cruise Future Now In the Hands of Governor

Governor DeSantis faces a crucial decision in December 2023 on expanding or limiting Key West's cruise ship operations.

Key West is currently at the center of a significant decision regarding a request by the cruise piers owner for expansion of cruise ship operations, a request that has sparked intense debate among residents, environmentalists, and politicians. 

The decision to allow larger and more cruise ships to come to Key West now rests in the hands of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. The Governor’s decision will have major implications for the local environment and economy and the future of cruise tourism in the region. 

DeSantis Faces Tough Key West Decision

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, Key West’s residents have actively sought to limit the size and number of cruise ships visiting their shores. Concerned about the environmental impact, they successfully passed three ballot measures in 2020 to cap daily passenger arrivals at 1,500. 

However, in a contentious move, the decisions were overturned by the state Legislature in 2021, with Governor DeSantis’ approval, signing a law preventing such local ballot measures from limiting marine commerce. While that seemed to be the end of the saga, a new issue has now arisen.

Mark Walsh, a hotelier overseeing Key West’s cruise ship port, has asked for state permission to expand the possible number and size of cruise ships arriving at the cruise port. While the expansion raises economic opportunities for Key West and its residents, it also carries significant environmental risks.

According to the New York Times, The governor himself has called the reefs a state treasure and will decide with his cabinet in December 2023 if Walsh can proceed with the expansion. Bearing in mind that Walsh already has a permit to allow larger ships, which expires in June.

Florida Governor at Port Canaveral
Photo Posted: Governor DeSantis

In essence, it means that even if DeSantis allows the expansion, it will merely be a continuation of the current situation. The denial of the permit will mean that the number of cruise ships sailing to Key West could be seriously limited.

At the core of the issue lies the fact that cruise ships cause significant disruption to the waters around the port due to their deep draft and the relatively shallow water level in Key West. 

The propellers lift sediment and sand from the ocean floor. This sediment clouds the water, reducing the sunlight crucial for coral health. When this sediment settles, it can blanket the coral, obstructing their access to sunlight and smothering them. 

Community Pushback In Key West

The expansion of cruise tourism in Key West faces fierce opposition from locals, and, on the other hand, a significant part of the local population is eager to see an increased number of cruise passengers arrive in Key West.

Safer Cleaner Ships, an activist group, has been at the forefront of battling against the damage cruise ships are doing to local coral reefs. While the group opposes large cruise ships from entering the waterways around Key West, it does welcome smaller cruise ships.

Safer Cleaner Ships states on its website: “The truth is, sensible limits on cruise ships in Key West will protect our coral reef and the tourist economy that depends on it. We will keep fighting to limit large cruise ships and defend the will of the people of Key West.”

“Our opponents said we wanted to ban cruise ships, but that was never true. Dozens of the world’s most beautiful cruise ships qualify to call on Key West under the voter-enacted size limits.”

Cruise Ship in Key West
Photo Credit: Stuart Monk / Shutterstock

Those who want to see more cruise ships arrive do so mainly because they feel their business is hurting. Local tour operators report a significant decrease in business, with some experiencing up to a 40% downturn, attributed to the reduced number of cruise ship visits. This decline is particularly felt by companies directly linked to the cruise industry. 

However, this trend might be influenced by other factors, especially considering that Key West is scheduled to welcome 342 cruise ship calls in 2024. A number that can hardly be called a downturn. Contrary to the belief that the city’s financial health heavily relies on cruise ship tourism, Key West emerged as one of the strongest economies in Florida post-pandemic.

Governor Ron DeSantis, who has received substantial campaign donations from Mark Walsh, owner and operator of the cruise pier in Key West, is now faced with a challenging decision. He must weigh the protection of Key West’s delicate coral reefs against the interests of his campaign contributors.

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