Key West Cruise Ship Vote Could Ripple Beyond Florida

Law360 (October 29, 2020, 1:25 PM EDT) — As Key West residents vote on a proposal that would ban large cruise ships from docking at the Florida island, residents of other overrun ports are keeping a close watch on the results as they use the pause in cruising caused by the coronavirus pandemic to reassess their relationship with the industry.

If passed by voters on Nov. 3, the proposed charter amendments would limit the number of people disembarking from cruise ships to a total of 1,500 daily and block ships with a capacity of more than 1,300 people, including both passengers and crew, from docking. They would also require the port to give priority to cruise lines with the best environmental and health records.

To residents of other cruise ports, the vote is seen as an important step toward taking back control of their communities. If others decide to follow suit, the result could upend an industry reeling from the pandemic and leave large cruise ships with a shrinking map of potential stops.

“It is about self-determination and about the community deciding what they want in their community as opposed to the cruise industry deciding,” said Karla Hart of the Global Cruise Activist Network, or GCAN, a new global group of cruise port residents urging change in the cruising industry. “The cruise industry comes in and impacts the community hugely and the community has little voice in what happens.”

Both the Key West Committee for Safer Cleaner Ships, which sponsored the proposed amendments, and GCAN are products of the coronavirus pandemic, when cruises became floating epicenters of COVID-19 outbreaks and small port communities with limited health care facilities worried that a ship full of infected visitors could cause a local outbreak.

At the start of the pandemic in March, Key West was full of spring breakers, snowbirds, cruise passengers and other tourists, and residents began to fear what it would mean if an outbreak were to happen there, according to Arlo Haskell, the treasurer of the Committee for Safer Cleaner Ships.

“One of the things we looked at was hospital capacity in our area,” Haskell said. “We found a way of measuring Key West against other Florida ports and ports around the country. Key West has fewer hospital beds per cruise port and more visitors per capita than any other cruise port.”

But it’s not just public health concerns motivating residents of port towns to push back against the industry.

In Key West, Haskell said the environmental benefits of the lack of ships are clearly visible to residents, who say the water has not been this consistently clear in decades.

“You can see when these big ships come in, they kick up these clouds of silt,” he said. “Now it’s just obvious that in seven months without the ships, the water quality has just dramatically improved. I think a lot of supporters are responding to that environmental benefit.”

Hart, who lives in Juneau, Alaska, said that on any given day in an average summer, four cruise ships could be docked at the port, unloading between 12,000 and 17,000 day-trippers into a community of just 32,000 residents. She said the industry has displaced the independent and shore-based group tours that used to exist there, and because cruise ship passengers get priority under the cruise lines’ contracts with local tour companies, independent tourists take a back seat and become what she called “second-class tourists.”

“I had a business that specialized in organizing independent itineraries, and I left it in part because as much as I love my town, I found I could no longer recommend it because it had become so overrun,” Hart said. “The whole experience was about cruise ships and maximizing profits for cruise ships. And everyone else was just collateral damage.”

She said that when other communities in Alaska have tried to exert some local control and implement regulations, the industry has responded by punishing them and pulling ships out completely.

Representatives for Carnival Corp. and Norwegian Cruise Lines did not respond to requests for comment for this story. A representative for Royal Caribbean directed Law360 to the Cruise Lines International Association, or CLIA, which did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

There is little data available on the popularity of the proposed Key West charter amendments, but Haskell said that a poll paid for by CLIA and leaked to his group showed a majority of respondents support each of the three proposals. The amendment that would require the city to prioritize cruise lines with the best environmental and health records had about 80% support, according to Haskell.

The proposals have drawn opposition from the Key West Bar Pilots Association, a group of harbor pilots that filed suit in July in an attempt to stop the referenda from getting on the ballot. In August, U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King declined to boot the proposed amendments from the ballot but said if the initiatives were to pass, the harbor pilots can come back to court and argue against them.

In the suit, the harbor pilots say the cruise ship industry accounts for an $85 million economic impact in Key West and is responsible for 1,250 jobs and 15% of the city’s total tax revenue.

But Key West Mayor Teri Johnston said the fiscal impact of the amendments to the city would be minimal, as all of the disembarkation fees charged by the city must by law go back into improving the port and other facilities for the cruise ship industry.

“There are basically no monies that go into the general funds,” she said. “It goes right back into port security at the dock, things of that nature.”

And cruise tourists, who don’t spend money on hotel stays or expensive dinners on the island, make up a small fraction of Key West’s tourism dollars, she said.

Johnston said that when the Committee for Safer Cleaner Ships had gathered enough signatures to get the proposals on the ballot, she went to the cruise industry to discuss residents’ concerns and said they “had some really good conversations.”

“The cruise industry was very open as far as compromise and things that they could do, though not necessarily with the size of ships,” she said. “But they were willing to make concessions. We should’ve had that conversation years ago, because the referendum is set.”

-Editing by Jill Coffey and Emily Kokoll.

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