Royal Caribbean International’s Empress of the Seas docked in Key West on Sunday – the first cruise ship to visit since Hurricane Irma struck the Florida Keys earlier this month.
Officials said resuming cruise ship port calls is significant for the region’s economy, and vital for residents whose livelihood depends on serving visitors.
“Being a tourist-based economy, we need our visitors to come to town, and that is our primary economy,” said Key West Mayor Craig Cates, who was on hand to welcome the ship’s 878 passengers and 600 crew members.
“They come here to see our beautiful resources, our beautiful town and architecture – and the servers, the bartenders, the hostesses, everybody, depends on them.
“The people need to go back to work, and this is a huge part of our recovery,” Cates said.
Keys and Florida officials announced on Monday that the destination will reopen to visitors on October 1. The decision to open the Keys to visitors was based on winding up some of the most immediate infrastructure repairs, officials said in a statement. Almost all power and water have been restored from Key Largo through Marathon as well as throughout Stock Island and Key West. Cellular service is working well, but the restoration of Comcast cable television and internet is lagging behind other utilities.
Keys county and tourism officials are to meet Monday to discuss formal opening dates for visitors to return to the Keys. Electric and water restoration is almost complete.
In addition to the port, Key West International Airport has reopened for commercial service. Officials say most hotels and visitor facilities in Key West have recovered and are resuming normal operations.
Still, some attractions and businesses were still closed in Key West on Sunday, such as the Hemingway Home and Museum. One of the top attractions in the Keys, the one-time residence of Ernest Hemingway is still undergoing landscaping cleanup but suffered no structural impacts and all of the property’s six-toed cats are well, according to Mike Morawski, who runs the museum.
While Hurricane Irma, which struck Sept. 10, caused varying degrees of damage along the 125-mile Florida Keys island chain, Key West and the northernmost island of Key Largo reported the fewest impacts.
A number of Keys special events scheduled for mid- to late October — including Key West’s Fantasy Fest, Marathon’s Stone Crab Eating Contest and Key Largo’s Humphrey Bogart Film Festival — are to take place as planned, according to organizers.