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By Banning Large Cruise Ships, Key West Residents Give The 'Middle Finger' To Industry

On Election Day Nov. 3, voters in Key West, Florida, chose to ban large cruise ships from the 4.2-square-mile island. 

Residents voted for three charter amendments that will limit daily cruise ship passengers to 1,500, only allow ships with a capacity of 1,300 to moor, and give docking priority to companies with the best environmental and health records, the Miami Herald reported. The measures passed overwhelmingly, by 63%, 60% and 80%, respectively, which amounts to residents giving the industry "the middle finger," as put it. 

Though a lawsuit is challenging the amendments, the vote may be a tipping point for the cruise industry. Activists around the world are organizing to push back against impacts from ships.

A racetrack on the Norwegian Bliss

According to Skift, the pushback against the cruise lines in Key West began with two sets of brothers who had grown up there. This spring, they were alarmed that coronavirus-infected passengers could cause a public health crisis for locals. Cruise lines stopped operating in March on orders from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and soon after, water quality improved markedly.

The brothers founded a group called the Key West Committee for Safer, Cleaner Ships and collected 2,500 petition signatures to put the referendum on the ballot. Some local business owners decried the effort, arguing that it would devastate the economy.

But according to the committee's research, despite a million cruise ship passengers having disembarked on Key West last year, they accounted for only about 7% of tourist spending. Cruise ship traffic increased by 650% since 1990, but local job creation grew by only 23%. Furthermore, "Under federal law, disembarkation revenue may only be used to benefit cruise ship passengers and the cruise lines themselves," the committee's website said. "It is illegal for the city of Key West to use disembarkation revenue on schools, parks, or any other public benefit."

The committee advocated for allowing small ships, arguing that they attract higher-spending customers and have significantly less impact on the marine environment. 

A company called Pier B, which operates one of the city's three ports (the other two are owned by the city and the Navy) filed a lawsuit before the vote even took place, suing the city, the supervisor of elections and the committee, alleging in a complaint filed in October that the referendums would unlawfully interfere with property rights.

In an answer to the complaint, the committee denied that Pier B Development Corp. “owns” the pier. "Pier B is substantially located on submerged property owned by the State of Florida and leased from a State agency," its court filing said. 

Under the new laws, fewer than half of cruise ships that docked in Key West last year would not be able to going forward. 

On Facebook, last week, the committee said that it would work with the industry group Cruise Lines International Association, which represents major cruise lines.

"We want to maximize small ship visitation as soon as possible. We are ready to work together with CLIA, its member cruise lines, and [the] City to achieve this goal."

Skift found that Key West's battle had inspired activists from Alaska to the Cayman Islands to start their own efforts to fend off cruise ships. A group called the Global Cruise Activist Network supports such efforts worldwide. Although some cruises have restarted operations under strict conditions, most cruise lines will not begin operating until at least January. According to, the leading companies have been burning through $1B a month while sidelined because of COVID-19.