Battle for cruise ships in island paradise Key West, Florida

With its turquoise waters and flashy sunsets, the island of Key West, at the southern tip of Florida, invites more leisurely strolls than legal battles. However, in recent years, the big cruise ships have sowed discord there.

These huge boats bring thousands of tourists every day to this small town of 26,000 inhabitants.

Many local businesses depend on their presence, but many residents also say they are fed up with these arrivals, like Arlo Haskell, co-founder of the Safer Cleaner Ships association.

“These cruise ships are an extractive industry that benefits from the beauty of Key West while undermining that beauty and ruining everyone’s experience,” he said.

In 2020, his association promoted three local referendums: one to limit the size of the boats, another so that they could not disembark more than 1,500 people a day, and a last one to give preference to boats that are more respectful of the environment.

All three proposals were approved by 60 to 80% of voters and ratified by the city council, a victory for Haskell. Or so he thought.

In June 2021, Republican Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a law suspending the measure. The text stated that voters could not interfere in matters of maritime trade.

Shortly before, the Miami Herald reported, companies belonging to the owner of Pier B in Key West (one of the main beneficiaries of the arrival of the cruise ships) had donated close to a million dollars to the Friends of Ron DeSantis, a group created to raise funds for the governor, whose name is circulating for the 2024 presidential election.

– Docks closed –

Therefore, Safer Cleaner Ships has taken up the fight, based on unexpected data.

During the pandemic, the suspension of cruise ships did not actually sink local finances. By contrast, in 2021 the city got 25% more sales tax than it did in 2019.

Hotels and restaurants appear to have benefited from Florida promoting business openings amid Covid-19, when other states across the country imposed severe restrictions.

Mr. Haskell’s association then tried to mobilize the population for the council to act.

Because the number of cruise ships cannot be limited, the city government last month approved the closure of two public docks in Key West for such ships.

Now these vessels can only dock at the city’s only private pier, Pier B, which receives one cruise ship per day. Gone are the days when two or three of these ships arrived daily.

Good news for many, but a blow to some businesses.

Because while cruise tourists only spend a few hours in the city, and usually eat on board their ship, they are a source of income for souvenir shops, ice cream parlors and places like the Ernest Hemingway Museum, located in the house of the writer American. that he lived there between 1931 and 1939, explains the mayor, Teri Johnston.

– “Damage” –

On this weekday morning, the streets of the city are almost empty.

Vanessa Wilder waits for passengers on a recently arrived boat to rent bikes.

“We get a lot out of these boats,” says the 25-year-old. “If we didn’t have them, a lot of businesses here would have to close.”

Haskell welcomes the council’s latest move, but insists that boats arriving at the private dock must not exceed the size desired by residents.

These boats “cause great damage to our ecosystem,” he says.

Scott Atwell, a spokesman for the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency in Key West, gets angry.

“We don’t have specific studies (establishing) that turbidity from cruise ships is different from natural turbidity” or that it “reaches our coral reefs in a harmful way,” he says.

However, the city council has decided to control the quality of the water.

“We don’t want to get rid of the cruise ships,” concludes the mayor. “We want to bring them to a happy middle ground so that we have good economic conditions but also a good quality of life for our people.”

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