Cheers and jeers for returning cruise ships in Key West

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People protested the arrival of the 2,200-passenger Norwegian Dawn.
People protested the arrival of the 2,200-passenger Norwegian Dawn. Photo Credit: Mark Hedden/markhedden.com

Over the last month, the arrival of cruise ships to Key West brought out locals cheering their return as well as protestors condemning their presence.

It was a snapshot of the industry's tumultuous year in the Florida port, a saga that is far from over.

Key West voters had overwhelmingly approved measures in November 2020 that would cap the number of cruise passengers allowed ashore daily, ban ships that carry more than 1,300 people (passengers and crew combined) from docking, and prioritize ships based on their health and environmental records.

But in June, legislators added language to a state Senate transportation bill that overturned the measures and was signed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Key West voters and supporters of the referendums vowed to press on, with their current strategy to have the city enact ordinances that have the same impact as the referendums. Over the summer, Key West commissioners said such ordinances were being drafted, according to several local reports, that would mirror the approved referendums. 

"We've got 63% of our voting population that said enough is enough. We have to have their backs," commissioner Jimmy Weekley said, according to a report in the South Florida Sun Sentinel

Boat protestors against large cruise ships in Key West.
Boat protestors against large cruise ships in Key West. Photo Credit: Mark Hedden/markhedden.com

"We have to stand here and find a way in which we can defend that referendum question that was passed. And we've got to tell the state of Florida, you can preempt this all you want, we're going to keep coming back with ordinances or resolutions in a way that we can get what our constituents want."

Supporters of the measures to curtail cruising came out on Dec. 9 to protest the arrival of the 2,200-passenger Norwegian Dawn, the largest ship to call at the port since the pandemic began.

The group that organized the referendums, the Key West Committee for Safer, Cleaner Ships, said about 200 people were protesting in Mallory Square and another 50 or so were out on boats.

No ordinances have yet been enacted to prevent large ships, for a few reasons. A major one is that one of the three main cruise docks in the city, Pier B, is private. Its owners threatened legal action over the cruise restrictions when they originally passed as referendums, and city commissioners in October suggested there may be a way to compromise so as not to infringe on the pier owner's rights and avoid what could be a costly legal battle. 

According to a report in Keys Weekly, if the city bans large ships from the two docks it controls, Mallory Pier and Outer Mole, but allows them to continue visiting Pier B, there would be a 60% to 65% reduction in Key West's annual cruise ship traffic, compared with the 95% reduction that would occur under the referendums as proposed. 

The two ships that visited Key West on Nov. 28 were an early indicator of what that might look like. The smaller Azamara Quest, with a passenger and crew capacity of 1,094, docked at Mallory, and the larger Crystal Serenity, with capacity for 1,695 guests and crew, berthed at Pier B. (Sailing at much lower than normal capacity, both ships would have been under the passenger cap on that day.) 

Local reports said the ships were greeted by local businesses welcoming the industry's return as well as some protestors. According to Florida Keys News, Safer, Cleaner Ships, had welcomed the Quest's arrival. 

"That is the kind of ship that we've been saying Key West has the market for," Evan Haskell, one of the group's organizers, told the news outlet

"We are happy they were the first vessel to call on Key West."

Regardless of what ends up happening legislatively, it appears that some cruise lines do not want to go against the will of its residents.

Several lines that used to visit Key West currently do not have it on their itineraries, including Disney Cruise Line, Carnival Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean International. However, those brands have not specifically cited the referendum as the reason Key West is not on their schedules.

Royal Caribbean's Serenade of the Seas made an emergency medical diversion to Key West in October.
Royal Caribbean's Serenade of the Seas made an emergency medical diversion to Key West in October. Photo Credit: Safer Cleaner Ships

Virgin Voyages has been more forthcoming. 

The cruise line, which launched its first ship this summer, currently has the port on itineraries starting in January but told Travel Weekly that it is in fact "not planning on calling into Key West at this time" and that the January sailings are subject to change.

"Part of our brand ethos is to create an Epic Sea Change for All, and a pillar of this commitment is respecting the communities we visit and making a positive impact," the line said in a statement. "We are actively working on a plan that suits the local Key West community as well as our [passengers]."

Virgin said that its executives, including CEO Tom McAlpin, had visited Key West in September to meet with community leaders, "and we continue to maintain an open dialogue with stakeholders."

Celebrity Cruises plans to begin calling in Key West in February, docking at Pier B. Azamara, meanwhile, will continue to call there several times this winter on Caribbean sailings from Miami. 

In October, Royal Caribbean International's Serenade of the Seas made an emergency medical diversion stop in Key West, becoming the unofficial first ship to call in Key West since March 2020. 

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