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Key West cruise ballot initiatives as contentious as Trump v. Biden

What would Key West look like without the big ships?
As US voters choose their next president, residents of Key West, Florida, are also deciding the future of cruising in their city.

Tuesday's local ballot has three cruise-related proposals.

Limits on numbers allowed ashore and ship sizes

One would limit the number of persons disembarking from cruise ships to a total of 1,500 per day. Another would prohibit cruise ships with capacity for 1,300 or more persons (passengers and crew) from disembarking. And the third would give priority to cruise lines with the best environmental and health records.

The cruise ship issue is 'very divisive,' a 'very big issue,' according to Edward Dawicki, director of research for the Greater Key West Chamber of Commerce.

'A hot topic,' said Doug Bradshaw, port director.

There's been some opposition to cruise ships in Key West for years, but this coalesced around the COVID-19 pandemic when the Key West Committee for Safer, Cleaner Ships picked up steam.

'Cruise ships are uniquely prone to the spread of infectious disease,' the group charges on its website, citing news reports from early in the pandemic as well as the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

High risk/low reward?

'The destructive environmental impacts of cruise ships on air and water quality are well-established,' the group continues. 'A return to previous cruise-ship size and disembarkation numbers in Key West would resume its negative impacts on the local environment and pose a serious risk to the health, safety and economy of its citizens.'

It goes on to claim: 'Overcrowding from cruise ships would threaten the recovery of Key West's $1 billion tourist industry, 92% of which is generated by multi-day tourists. Cruise ships account for 50% of visitors to the island but contribute just 8% of tourism revenues. Cruise ships present Key West with a high-risk/low-reward proposition that must be urgently addressed.'

The Safer, Cleaner Ships group maintains it's not out to ban cruising. It lists 34 ships that comply with the ballot initiative size that were scheduled within the Caribbean basin in 2020 and points to the many smaller vessels, mainly expedition ships, that are on order.

Busiest US cruise transit port

Key West, with fewer than 25,000 residents, is the busiest US cruise transit port, with 965,000 passengers on 417 calls in calendar year 2019. 

Should the 1,300-limit initiative pass, based on the same roster of ships that visited last year, subtracting those with capacity above 1,300 people leaves 12 ships. The total passenger count would be reduced to just under 11,000, and ship calls to 22, according to figures shared by Dawicki of the Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber's board opposes the first two ballot questions but supports the environmental measure.

The Chamber calculates cruising's economic impact is worth an estimated nearly $91m a year. That includes passenger and crew spending, docking fees and taxes. The business, it says, supports 833 total jobs, including 600 direct, 138 indirect and 94 induced.

In a letter published in Keys Weekly, Capt. Bob Maguire, a harbor pilot, disputed claims that cruise ships are causing environmental harm and said the referenda put Key West's economy at risk.

'An excuse to destroy one leg of our tourism economy'

Maguire charged the Safer, Cleaner Ships group is 'leveraging the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to destroy one leg of our tourism economy that they don’t like. No cases of COVID-19 were attributed to port calls in Key West. Did SCS make any effort to curtail air travel into Key West to prevent COVID from reaching our community? Of course not.'

Maguire also noted the smaller ships that would be allowed if the measures pass tend to be older vessels. 'They are not safer or cleaner than a new, technologically advanced ship,' he said.

Voters will decide an issue that has pitted friends against each other and sparked legal challenges.

Bradshaw, the port director, suggested the facts have been skewed on both sides but there's one point that likely has consensus: 'Overall, people would favor the referendum question on the environment. It's pretty broad. It could be a split vote,' he said of the three measures.

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