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Cruise ships return to Key West, while city tries to navigate a new course with the industry

 Passengers getting off the Crystal Serenity at Pier B in Key West were greeted with signs welcoming them back to the island. But not all locals are pleased with the return of big ships.
Nancy Klingener
Passengers getting off the Crystal Serenity at Pier B in Key West were greeted with signs welcoming them back to the island. But not all locals are pleased with the return of big ships.

On a sunny Saturday morning, some of the first people to leave the Crystal Serenity cruise ship at Key West's Pier B were met by locals holding signs that said things like "Welcome back to Key West — we've missed you."

It was the first time a cruise ship brought visitors to the island in more than a year. And they're the first cruise visitors to arrive since Key West voters approved limits that would drastically cut back the industry on the island.

Last November, Key West approved three new amendments to the city charter that would limit the number of people who could visit Key West by cruise ship to 1,500 a day, limit the ships that could call there to those with a capacity of 1,300 people maximum and require the city to prioritize ships with the best environmental and health safety records.

Those amendments to the city charter were later overturned by the state Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis. They approved a new law last spring that banned voter initiatives from regulating ports. But that hasn't settled the cruise ship question in Key West.

The Halligan family was out at the port holding home-made signs thanking the passengers for supporting mom-and-pop businesses. D.J. Halligan says cruise passengers normally provide more than half of the business for their Tropical Vibes ice cream shop and that they closed the shop except for weekends while the ships were not calling.

"So today's pretty monumental for us," said Halligan. "We have a shot at saving our business now."

George Fernandez came down to the dock to see the Crystal Serenity come in. He owns the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory, which does tours for cruise ship visitors. The main venue is still operating. But not an auxiliary shop near the cruise docks that opened in 1995.

"We had to close it because we depended very, very strongly on cruise ships," said Fernandez. "Throughout those 26 years it was our cash cow."

Key West has been divided over cruise ships for a long time. With the pandemic, the vote to crack down on the industry and the move from Tallahassee to reverse that decision, it's gotten ugly. Fernandez says he hopes the different interests can reach a compromise.

"I don't want to see this dog fight any more. We can't have this any more. I want to come together and be able to find a peaceful solution," he said.


Stuart Strickland voted in favor of the cruise ship limits. He grew up in the Keys.

"Since these things quit coming in, our water has got clean like it used to be," he said. "Without our environment, why are people going to want to come to Key West? They can get drunk anywhere."

Charter fishing captain Will Benson is one of the four locals who started Safer, Cleaner Ships — the group that got the cruise ship limits on the ballot last year.

As the Crystal Serenity entered Key West Harbor, Benson launched a drone from his skiff and captured images of the silt plume in the cruise ship's wake.

"On a normal day with wind and waves, you would never see that. The difference is, you have a huge cruise ship that's going very close to the bottom with its propeller" he said.

Charter captains like Benson rely on clear water for their businesses, like bringing clients to fish for tarpon near Key West Harbor.

"Hemingway fished for tarpon. President Truman fished for tarpon when he was here," Benson said. "It's world famous."

The city of Key West is on a multi-track approach when it comes to cruise ships.

Mayor Teri Johnston and city commissioners are meeting this week with an attorney the city's hired to work on the issue.

"We want to know, first of all, can you draft an ordinance that keeps us out of court, that protects the city financially and that also protects the will of the people," she said.

Johnston says the city is also talking to cruise lines about smaller ships that meet the limits that voters approved and the Legislature overturned. And city is trying to bring together the businesses that benefit from cruise ships with the limits' supporters to craft a compromise.

They're also keeping an eye on Tallahassee, where the Legislature goes into session next month. Key West has been in the crosshairs in recent years with the Legislature overturning the ban on the sale of some sunscreens, then taking aim at the cruise ship limits in the city charter.

"Every single thing that they're doing these days said, that we know more about your community than you do and that simply is not correct," said Johnston. "To have legislators that are six and half, seven hours, eight hours away saying 'This is what you should do' is very concerning."

Learn more: "Small Town, Big Target" via WLRN's Tallahassee Takeover podcast

Legislative committees are already considering bills ahead of the next legislative session, which starts in January. One proposal is moving forward that would allow businesses to sue if local ordinances cause at least 15% losses of revenue or profits.

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Copyright 2021 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Nancy Klingener covers the Florida Keys for WLRN. Since moving to South Florida in 1989, she has worked for the Miami Herald, Solares Hill newspaper and the Monroe County Public Library.