In November, when the Crystal Serenity docked at Pier B, a dozen or so cruise-ship supporters welcomed guests with signs emblazoned with things like “Welcome back to Key West. We’ve missed you.”
“Today’s pretty monumental for us,” D.J. Halligan, whose family owns the Tropical Vibes Ice Cream shop, told WRLN, the main public radio station for South Florida, as the ship came in. “We have a shot at saving our business now.”
Two weeks later, around 300 locals joined together to protest the arrival of another cruise ship, Norwegian Dawn, a 965-foot, 3,300-person vessel owned by Norwegian Cruise Lines. As Arlo Haskell addressed the onshore crowd over a speaker system, Will Benson directed a flotilla of 45 boats sporting Safer, Cleaner Ships flags. A drone in the sky captured images of the ship coming into port. As the boat approached, it kicked up a trail of sediment adjacent to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Looking at the footage feels like watching a slow-motion video of gallons and gallons of chocolate milk being poured into a swimming pool, with brown clouds swelling slowly into the surrounding water.
“Nobody can watch one of those videos and say to themself, ‘Sure, this is OK,’” says Benson. “It’s just undeniable. You can see this silt trail from outer space. It’s even worse than we knew it was at the beginning of all this, and we’ve documented it.”
In an email to Outside, Walsh refuted the claim that silt from cruise ships damages the coral, citing a letter from a noted researcher working on behalf of the consulting firm Dial Cordy and Associates Inc. stating that while “it is true that sediment disturbance, as evidenced by the turbid plumes you see generated from cruise ships are unsightly, these plumes cause no measurable harm to coral.”
Since this spring, roughly three cruise ships a week have docked in Key West. Critics watch each docking with a careful eye, documenting various infractions, like bringing in ships so big that they’re unable to keep to the very tight underwater-area restrictions kept in place by the city and the Navy, which has an adjoining port.
“The community is ready to move on,” says Benson. But the issue of cruise ships in Key West is still unsettled.
With fewer boats arriving than in 2019, the downtown crowds have been kept to a minimum—and the economy has mostly thrived. Sales-tax revenues in 2021 were up 25 percent over 2019, which had been a record-setting year. Robert Goltz, executive vice president of the Key West Chamber of Commerce, says this boom can be attributed, at least in part, to the pandemic’s effect on tourism overall. “If you wanted to go to a sunny island, you weren’t going out of the country because of COVID,” he says. “Key West was people’s Caribbean option. If it wasn’t for COVID, it’s my belief that the numbers would be far different, the opposite way.”
Local disgust with tourists dates as far back as the creation of the road, but much of the recent antipathy toward travelers isn’t the result of poor individual behaviors but their collective impact.
Steven Nekhaila believes the same thing, that the influx of tourists and tourist dollars in late 2021 and 2022 was thanks to the fact that Americans were on domestic, rather than international, tropical vacations. In his view, those tourists will soon be headed elsewhere and the city needs to encourage tourism of all kinds, including welcoming cruise passengers.
“I don’t think there is such a thing as too much tourism,” he says. “As long as laws are being respected and people aren’t being disruptive, it should be encouraged, because it allows everybody to live here.”
That’s, of course, not how anti-cruise advocates see it. “The pandemic provided a kind of real-world experiment: What happens to the environment when you take the big ships out? What happens to the economy?” says Haskell. “Most people would have thought, Sure, the environment would get better, but the economy would get worse. And, in fact, they both got better.”
In other words, the past year and a half sans ships has only strengthened the case that Key West would stand to gain more by prioritizing sustainable, overnight tourism, with its higher value per tourist, rather than catering to the large cruise-ship crowd.
“We’re a laid-back community,” says Mayor Johnston, “and that’s the type of experience that we would like to give the people that choose to visit us.”
When I was there last year, when cruise ships were awaiting CDC approval to sail, walking around Key West felt like snagging a private tour of Machu Picchu. The streets were mostly calm, and it lent a completely different vibe to the city. You could stroll around, rather than push through. Shops were happy to welcome you in, rather than hurry you out after buying a $10 trinket. You could enjoy a key lime pie on a stick on a sidewalk and not worry about getting bumped into.
The only nuisance was an endearing one: the constant crowing of feral roosters, which have become something of an island mascot. Their protected status arose in typical Key West fashion. Some of the birds are the descendants of fighting cocks brought by Caribbean-island expatriates in the early 20th century. Key West eventually banned cockfighting, and to prevent the owners from simply killing the roosters (at least according to local legend), the area was declared a no-kill island.
Today the roosters are accepted as a natural part of the ecosystem, despite their early-morning aural assaults. Yet even as a sort of protected species, to combat overpopulation, the island occasionally sends them to the mainland. Whether Key West can do that with its other invasive species remains to be seen.