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While Americans chose their next president by a close margin, a majority of Key West voters were united last week on three referendum votes that are now city law, preventing more than 1,500 passengers from disembarking per day, banning ships with a capacity of 1,300 or more, and giving docking priority to cruise lines with the best environmental and health records.

Key West isn’t the first US port city to demand capacity limits from the cruise lines, but what’s notable is that this vote emerged from an unprecedented eight-month cruise tourism pause, giving residents a rare chance to see nature bounce back in the surrounding marine sanctuary.

In a time when the focus has shifted towards conscious travel post-Covid, Key West’s ban of big ships is poised to influence and potentially shift other community-cruise relationships around US and global port cities in a post-Covid world.

“It’s been a real David and Goliath kind of story,” Arlo Haskell, co-founder of the Key West Committee for Safer Cleaner Ships, the group behind the referendum, told Skift. “For this little tiny town to take on this massive industry that as you can see, in the share of the vote, has not been a popular industry here for a long time.”

Taking Back Home and Planet

Two sets of brothers who grew up together on Key West — the Haskells and the Bensons — knew it was time to act after seeing the highly publicized coronavirus infections on cruise ships in March. What began as a public health concern for their home and a desire to limit the return of potential super-spreader crowds of cruisers, evolved into a bigger goal to save Key West’s environment. Together, they collected 2,500 petition signatures from registered voters for the referendum to be placed on the ballot; it took just two weeks to get double the minimum of signatures required.

“It was public health that really got us going,” Arlo Haskell told Skift. “As we moved forward, a big part of the campaign and the support from the community came about as a result of the very positive environmental changes that we were seeing in pretty short order. Within, I would say, about the three month mark, we just started to notice a real difference in the water quality around Key West.”

One of the most popular cruise destinations in the Caribbean, and a Florida gateway for most cruise itineraries to the region, Key West boasts an enviable location in a national marine sanctuary, home to the only living coral reef in the continental US. In 2019, the city of approximately 25,000 people received close to one million cruise ship visitors — responsible for 6.2 percent of total tourism spending as of 2017-2018 — while overnight stays amounted to two million.

According to Haskell, Key West’s unique features among Caribbean ports includes a narrow channel and shallow harbor close to the barrier reef, making it particularly vulnerable to big ships. “[W]hen these big ships come in and out, they physically disrupt the sediment at the bottom and they kick up these big silt plumes that trail the ships for seven miles until they’re out into deep water,” Haskell said. “So you see the immediate impact when every ship comes in and out.And then you know, day after day, up to three ships a day, it just becomes this chronic condition, that sediment just never gets to settle. ”

Key West’s push against cruise lines dates back to 2013, when residents also voted by an overwhelming majority against an industry driven initiative to dredge and widen the channel, which runs through the marine sanctuary. Jolly Benson led that movement, which Haskell thinks most likely woke residents to the idea that they had the power to make a change.

When the CDC’s no sail ban went into effect in March, nature began restoring itself. “So people started to notice that the water quality was really improving. The ships are gone, nothing else has changed and we’re seeing consistent clear water that hasn’t been present here in 30 years,” Haskell said. “It really brought back memories of growing up here and everybody was saying that, growing up we had lots of people in the water every day, fishermen and divers. So that kind of ‘see it with your own eyes’ quality really powered our support in the community to get back some of what we had.”

Cruise tourism veteran Carolyn Spencer-Brown applauded Key West’s voters’ decision to choose what’s best for their city. “[I]t’s about time that people who live in a touristy place took back their community. I think it’s time that we start to think about cruise tourism in a more thoughtful way. And that responsibility to me is equally, if not more so, on the ports of call themselves to determine what they are willing to invest.”

Smaller, High-Value Tourism for All?

Pre-Covid, the battle of small port city communities against cruise lines and overtourism debate were raging. For Key West, the challenges come from businesses who believe they’ll lose even more revenue from no cruises in 2021, after an already difficult pandemic year of no cruise tourism.

Key West native Analise Andrews, owner of Key West Food Tours and whose grandparents moved to Key West from Cuba in the 1950s, expressed feeling conflicted over the big cruise ship ban. “It’s a very complex issue for me at least. I feel like it’s a step in the right direction environmentally [.] Fundamentally I do care more in the long term about the environment, however it was a very extreme way to say we care about the environment,” Andrews told Skift. “I feel like there should’ve been a plan in place for all of these locals and businesses that were going to be impacted from it versus just completing cutting it off. It’s drastic and it’s kicking people down in a time when we haven’t had business for a while because of Covid.”

Andrews said that overnight visitors often shared they were day cruisers who decided to return to Key West a year or more later, and that even the restaurants on her walking food tour will be affected. “[T]hese are small mom and pop restaurants that were like – no, actually, cruisers come here, they get off the ship and they walk a mile to this restaurant, and they eat here.”

The arguments of big cruises bringing in big revenue to the destination or that cruisers eventually turn into return overnight tourists remain hotly contested among cruise and sustainable tourism experts, as is often the case in the Caribbean.

In her report on the economics of cruise tourism in Key West for Stand.earth, sustainable tourism expert Martha Honey, CEO of Responsible Travel Consulting and Director Emeritus, Center for Responsible Travel (CREST), found that Key West wasn’t faring so well with cruises. “Key West is a very well developed tourism destination with a very sort of sophisticated land based tourism, and I had assumed that their cruise tourism would in a way parallel that,” she said. “And in fact they are doing so badly compared to other ports of call in terms of the amount of money they’re getting per cruise passenger, the amount of money they’re getting In terms of docking fees, and so on. That was shocking, that they’re near the bottom of the barrel.”

Visit Florida had no comment on how Key West’s decision would affect the state’s tourism industry, deferring instead to the local tourism office for the Florida Keys. “We understand that voter approval of the three cruise ship referendums is likely to have a negative economic impact on a number of Key West tourism-related businesses,” Stacey Mitchell, the director of the Monroe County Tourist Development Council (TDC), told Skift. “We’re hoping that TDC’s marketing program will help attract overnight, leisure travelers to Key West to help defray deficits for any affected business.”

Determining Cruising Standards in A Post-Covid World

The Key West Committee for Safer and Cleaner Ships said health and safety standards will be easy for the City to determine per the CDC’s Vessel Sanitation Program. But how will Key West monitor ships’ environmental records?

“A place like Key West, they’d want to be really cautious,” Megan Epler Wood, director of the International Sustainable Tourism Initiative at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told Skift. “I think water testing is the easiest way to show what the problems are. They need to do water quality testing in the cruise port that looks at the specific chemicals that are associated with the emissions from the scrubbers.”

Reducing ship sizes and limiting crowds are also likely to mute the bulk of environmental risks. “The controlling depth in our harbor is about 28.5 feet and we used to get a lot of ships that draw 26-27 feet,” Haskell said. “And going forward the small ships that qualify, the average is less than 20 feet so it’s a major difference in terms of immediate bottom impacts. And then of course in terms of waste water discharge, air emissions, it goes down when the size of the ship goes down. It’s the size restrictions themselves that are the most potent environmental benefit.”

Port Communities Eyeing Key West Result

The Key West community’s clear “no” against big ships, particularly on the environmental aspect, quickly echoed across global port cities, sending a wave of optimism among activists from Alaska to the Caribbean, even in the current economic downturn.

“I definitely think that we now have an opportunity for a big shift, and I’m working with others in the community to start doing some serious organizing,” Karla Hart, an activist in Juneau, Alaska, told Skift. “I have a list of 11 initiatives that I’m brainstorming.”

Hart is also the co-founder of a first-ever Global Cruise Activist Network (GCAN). Made up of a coalition of port city activists and cruising experts from around the US and the world who first connected during the lockdown, GCAN officially launched in September. The network meets bi-weekly to share knowledge and exchange ideas in creating a better cruise tourism future for their respective port cities, one that protects the environment and communities from overtourism. GCAN is preparing to launch a “Rethink before Restart” campaign addressing cruise lines, but also explaining the regenerative travel concept to Juneau residents and the possibility of reinventing the industry.

From the Cayman Islands, Linda Clark, who joins GCAN’s bi-weekly meetings, also felt encouraged by Key West’s result. She campaigned last year to prevent a large port from being built in George Town Harbour just for large cruises. “[I]t would decimate 32 acres of our coral reef systems which have been scientifically shown to be the healthiest in the Caribbean.” A people-initiated referendum on the cruise berthing facility construction was signed into law in 2018, but locals have been waiting ever since for a date to be set for voting, with the Government stating that the project was dropped while cruise lines haven’t corroborated. Residents are hoping the referendum will happen in 2021, under a new government.

“We already get 600 ships per year with 1.9 million passengers and our local population is 65,000 people,” Clark told Skift. “The ships come into Grand Cayman and the square miles is 76 so it’s a very small place to have 1.9 million, plus the stayover, plus the resident population which has also escalated. We just don’t have the space, we don’t have the carrying capacity or the infrastructure.”

Legal Battles Ahead

With the Key West referendum provisions now city law, what awaits Key West and the Safer Cleaner Ships Committee is a lawsuit in state court by the private pier owner over the new cruise limiting provisions. Prior attempts to block the referendum being placed on the ballot failed in federal court and in state court. The state judge postponed a decision on any of the underlying legal issues and the case is expected to resume soon.

Cruise ships have yet to publicly address the Key West vote, save for a general comment last week that they were willing to have a dialogue with the destination. Skift’s attempts to reach the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) and cruise lines went unanswered, while Oceania Cruises deferred any comment to CLIA and the Key West government.

“We do hope to work with CLIA to really make Key West the Caribbean’s premier small ship destination,” Haskell told Skift. “We campaigned on bringing small ships here in lieu of the big ships and we’re serious about trying to do that. We want it to work out as well as possible for everybody.” Haskell reiterated the committee’s support for the city in any upcoming lawsuits, including raising funds to bring experts and lawyers to the table to make it work out for everyone.

A Potential Precedent-Setting Vote

As the big cruise lines prepare to meet the CDC’s conditional sailing requirements so they can sail again as early as January — putting out notices to travel agents who want to be part of the test sail with crew — the eventual legal outcome will determine whether Key West will see any big cruises at all next year at its one private pier and whether the absence of big ships will be offset by higher overnight tourism.

“We have about 300 restaurants on this little 2×4 mile island,” Andrews said. “The only reason locals like me are able to have all these beautiful benefits of living here, of restaurants and things to do is because tourists support that. All of these businesses can’t rely just on locals.”

Haskell believes the future lies in overnight tourism, as well as smaller ships that can better partner with Key West’s powerful overnight tourism. “We love people who love Key West, but we want tourism where the economic benefits are in balance with the impact to environment and infrastructure, and everything else, and that’s what you don’t see with the cruise industry.”

In the meantime, Key West’s historic vote has placed the conversation of overtourism back front and center during an unusual time of heightened concerns over the return of cruises on the public health, and over how to “do better” for the environment and local communities when travel restarts. In other words, this result has all the makings for a precedent-setting shift in cruise tourism post-Covid.

Photo Credit: Key West voted to ban big ships, signaling a continued push against cruise overtourism post-Covid. Güldem Üstün / Flickr Creative Commons