Illustration of protestors near a large cruise ship
Illustration of protestors near a large cruise ship
As the cruise industry ramps up to full steam ahead, efforts to ban the mega ships continue. (Illustration: Jack Richardson)

Key West Doesn’t Want Your Big Cruise Ships

Mega cruise ships stopped sailing to Key West, Florida, during the height of COVID-19. Many locals appreciated the resulting peace and quiet and won a vote for large ships not to return. But the fight’s not over.

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Two years ago, when the pandemic hit and the world went into lockdown, the cruise industry was devastated by COVID-19 outbreaks, as some ships were stranded for weeks offshore with sick passengers. Almost overnight, the industry, with millions of workers and customers, was shut down, the boats dropping off the face of the earth like a cartoon schooner sailing over the edge of the planet. For the first time in a generation, many ports of call woke up and discovered they had suddenly been thrust back into a time most residents had never known—era BCS: Before Cruise Ships.

Without this primary source of tourism income, some port communities suffered, with layoffs rippling through economies dependent on the dockings. One study estimated that ports in Florida lost more than $22 billion in 2020, thanks to COVID interruptions and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s ban on cruise ships. But in some places, like Key West, that ban allowed locals to envision a future without the industry dominating tourism.

“It was a stroke of luck,” says Key West mayor Teri Johnston, of the CDC’s original no-sail order. “It gave our residents a chance to see what Key West would look like without the disembarkations—sometimes 10,000 people a day. We’ve never seen cleaner waters, cleaner skies, and our overnight visitors have had the rare opportunity to take a leisurely walk down the street.”

Liking what they saw, some Key West residents attempted to make the reprieve permanent. In November 2020, they voted on and decisively passed three landmark measures limiting cruise-ship traffic to just the smallest ships and those with the cleanest environmental records. (Two of the measures were approved by over 60 percent of voters and the other by more than 80 percent.) Less than a year later, the Italian government followed suit, formally banning large cruise ships from entering Venice’s fragile lagoon, declaring the area in front of the iconic St. Mark’s Square a national monument. In September 2021, French Polynesia also zeroed in on the industry, announcing that cruise ships carrying more than 3,500 passengers would no longer be allowed at its ports of call, including those in Bora Bora and Tahiti, which relied on cruise ships for more than a third of its visitors.

Even today, as the cruise industry ramps up to full steam ahead, efforts to ban the mega ships continue. Overtourism is once again a top-of-mind concern in destinations around the globe, and the ships are an easy target for curbing visitor numbers.

Yet while a few countries and islands have been able to limit cruise ships, most have not. Even in Key West, a return to the BCS era was short-lived. That’s because, in June 2021, state governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill with a controversial amendment that effectively overturned the city’s voter-approved measures. The legislation, a general-transportation bill, was amended at the last minute by the Florida legislature to include a provision preventing ballot initiatives from regulating commerce in ports, rendering the will of Key West voters moot. Endeavors to ban cruise ships to the island have been a heated political battle, marred by lawsuits, threats of more lawsuits, personal insults, and controversial actions that have led all the way up to the Florida governor’s office.

Indeed, the never-ending drama in Key West—a proudly rebellious island that seceded (for a few minutes) from the U.S. in the 1980s—perhaps best exemplifies the global reevaluation of the cruise industry, one that could shape the future of tourism. But as the fight there demonstrates, corralling the cruise industry is like trying to subdue a hundred-pound tarpon on light tackle: once you hook it, you’re never really in control.

“What options are we left with if the cruise industry won’t listen to our concerns and the Florida politicians simply overrule our demands?” says captain Will Benson, a fishing guide in the Keys who helped campaign for the measures to limit big cruise ships on the November 2020 ballot. “Maybe the only recourse we have left is to pull off some pirate shit, secede from the U.S. again, and become a real Conch Republic this time.”

The Norwegian Dawn kicks up silt heading into a Key West port.
The Norwegian Dawn stirs up sediment heading into a Key West port. (Safer, Cleaner Ships)

Most people tend to fit into two divisive camps when it comes to cruise ships: you either like the community-at-sea aspect of the big vessels, or you wouldn’t set foot on what some consider floating petri dishes if your life depended on it. However you view them, it’s worth pointing out that it’s a massive business—or was pre-COVID—one that raked in as much as $46.6 billion per year. Nearly 30 million passengers boarded such ships in 2019, the last normal year for the industry; of those, almost 12 million set sail in the Caribbean, with Key West a popular port of call in the larger region. It’s easy to understand why.

Key West’s Old Town, which comprises a third of the four-square-mile island, is one of the nation’s most remarkable historic districts. The entire area is preserved under the National Register of Historic Places due to its unique, mostly wooden structures. The waters surrounding the island are impossibly blue, full of tarpon and manatees, and have captivated visitors with irresistible legends—pirates marauding merchant ships, Hemingway landing thousand-pound marlin, rum runners racing from Havana with a new supply of hooch during Prohibition. It’s home to one of the most stunning sections of the third-largest barrier reef in the world.

In America, very few small towns are as dynamic, and no others boast its Caribbean flair. Key West’s three cruise terminals allow passengers to pour off the gangway directly into the historic district, where it’s a short walk to the bars on Duval Street and an equally short stumble back onto a departing ship. Shore excursions, as they’re called in cruising parlance, include everything from bike tours to bar sessions at Capt. Tony’s, a legendary saloon (formerly called Sloppy Joe’s) where Hemingway drowned his sorrows.

“They’ve built these monster ships that are just too big,” says Will Benson, a local fishing guide. “It’s volume tourism at its worst.”

When a ship pulls into port, Old Town transforms into an island version of New Orleans’s Bourbon Street. It’s swarmed with visitors, sometimes more than 10,000 over the course of a few hours when several ships are docking—and this in a community of just 26,000 permanent residents.

“You can’t move on the streets of the city when we have three cruise ships here,” says Mayor Johnston. “No local or return visitor is heading into Old Town at that point. They know better.”

When I visited the island in March of 2021, cruise ships were still awaiting the CDC’s approval to set sail. It was the height of Florida’s spring-break season, and Miami Beach, crushed under the weight of college students desperate to party after a year of pandemic restrictions, had taken the extraordinary step of curbing the throngs by imposing a nightly curfew. Key West, 130 miles south, was experiencing its own tourist boom—room-occupancy rates were returning to 2019 numbers and sales-tax levies were as strong as ever. Mallory Square, its main pedestrian zone, was still jumping with tourists sipping rum drinks from the to-go bar at El Meson de Pepe. But the island without the cruise ships felt, well, manageable.

Arlo Haskell, a lifelong local who is the executive director of the Key West Literary Seminar and a primary spokesman for Safer, Cleaner Ships—the nonprofit that helped get the 2020 measures on the ballot—walked with me along the waterfront from Jimmy Buffet’s “secret” recording studio to the cruise piers. As we passed the old Custom House, now the Key West Museum of Art and History, Haskell pointed out how, on days when a big cruise ship docks at the island, the floating city dwarfs the brick building, completed in 1891.

“You can tell a ship is here just by looking up,” he said. “Even first-time tourists who are staying overnight know not to head down to the waterfront on those days.”

Haskell and I wandered through Mallory Square, where a nightly mini festival springs up around sunset, filled with fire eaters, caricature artists, and sword swallowers entertaining the out-of-town crowds. Tourists flock to see the sunset, which locals call the best in the world, thanks to the island’s consistently clear skies and the way the orange globe happens to settle directly over the confluence of the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean, with sunbeams shooting up from the water like some Bob Ross painting.

Locals protest as a ship arrives in Key West.
Locals protest as a ship arrives in Key West. (ArJay Hasty)

At the time of our stroll, the Florida legislature had yet to unravel Key West’s cruise-ship measures. Without the ships, the water quality had improved around the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, according to a study by Florida International University. Onshore, there was a similar effect. The town had become quietly comfortable, even though overnight tourism had picked up significantly, with Key West registering the highest hotel occupancy rate in the entire country that March. It collected almost the same amount in sales tax in the last quarter of 2020, mid-pandemic, than it did during the same period in 2019; this was attributed to the fact that Americans were still looking for a sunny island getaway, and cruise tourism accounted for under 10 percent of overall tourism spending there, according to studies. Almost two full years without the big ships clearly showed that Key West could survive—even thrive—without those passengers.

On the other hand, Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), the industry’s most prominent trade group, points to research demonstrating that cruise-visitor spending supports roughly 1 in 20 jobs in town. “Cruising is an integral part of sustainable tourism,” the association stated in an email to Outside, “with cruise lines partnering with many communities to balance the needs of communities and environmental commitments and practices, while contributing to the visitor experience and the local economy.”

Other destinations that have studied the impact of cruise-ship tourism during the pandemic, however, have been less than impressed with the ships’ impact on the local economy. Cruise tourism in Victoria, British Columbia, for example, constituted nearly 12 percent of the total number of visitors in 2019, but those tourists accounted for less than 2 percent of spending in the region, according to a study by Responsible Travel Consulting.

“As a tourist destination, we don’t need the big ships to thrive,” Haskell told me. At the time, he was buoyant, if still bracing for the fight ahead. Yet when I caught up with him a few months after DeSantis had signed the transportation bill and the first large cruise ships had returned to Key West, his outlook had soured. To curb cruise traffic, the Key West City Commission had toyed with the idea of severely limiting ships at Pier B, the island’s private cruise terminal, a move that would have almost certainly inspired a lengthy legal battle.

Instead, the city commission began negotiating a resolution with Pier B and its owner, Mark Walsh, who is also the vice president of Ocean Properties Hotels and Resorts, one of the largest privately owned hotel-management and development firms in North America, with multiple properties across Florida. The commission voted down a proposal to change Pier B’s operating agreement in April 2022, sending everyone back to the drawing board.

The only tangible movement, aside from the big ships rumbling back into port, was a vote by the Key West City Commission to close the two city-controlled docks, Mallory and Outer Mole piers, to nearly all cruise ships. These docks can now only be used if there’s not another ship scheduled to dock at Pier B, and ships docking at them need to be under a 1,300-person capacity.

It was a small victory for Safer, Cleaner Ships, but not a satisfactory one. The majority of ships have always docked at Pier B. The city is back to square one in its negotiations with Pier B, with no end in sight.

“It was a limited victory,” Haskell said of the commission’s vote. “It doesn’t change the bottom line, which is that there was an election with a very decisive result, and that result was totally overturned. What we’ve achieved is two-thirds of what the voters asked for, but we want 100 percent.”

Key West Mayor Teri Johnston
The cruise ship pause “gave our residents a chance to see what Key West would look like without the disembarkations—sometimes 10,000 people a day," says Key West Mayor Teri Johnston. (Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty)

Before the pandemic paused nearly all travel in the spring of 2020, overtourism was one of the trendiest words in the travel industry. Destinations from Majorca to Amsterdam to Angkor Wat were grappling with too many people. Solutions ranged from charging dramatically higher visa fees to limiting the number of Airbnb rental properties. Some locations were forced to take drastic measures to protect specific areas. In Iceland, the country shut down access to a stunning remote canyon because Justin Bieber filmed a music video in it and Beliebers were flocking there in droves, trampling the sensitive environment.

“It’s a natural wonder that wasn’t meant to be that popular,” the director of Iceland’s national tourism agency, Inga Hlin Palsdottir, said to CNN at the time.

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. Certain lands, cities, and streets simply cannot handle excess crowds, no matter how carefully out-of-towners treat the environs. When you add a few thousand ship passengers to the mix, it’s easy to see why so much ire is directed at the cruise industry.

“Being a tourist destination is like being on a pendulum,” says Mayor Johnston. “We’re constantly balancing our quality of life, our fragile environment, and the economic impact that tourism has on us, and the big cruise ships throw everything out of whack.”

Critics of the industry say the ships have gotten too big and are docking too frequently, with a diminishing financial return for locals. Today’s mega cruise ships, as they are called, are about three times the size of those in the 1990s and now hold thousands of people. The world’s largest, Royal Caribbean’s Wonder of the Seas, can accommodate up to 6,988 passengers and is staffed with 2,300 crew members.

Some big ships have been notorious for their environmental issues, from runaway emissions to “waste discharge,” a euphemism for dumping sewage, bilge water, and solid waste into the ocean. Princess Cruises, owned by the Carnival Corporation, was fined $40 million in 2017, after pleading guilty to felony charges that arose from its deliberate dumping of oil-contaminated waste into the water, then covering it up. In January of this year, the company pleaded guilty to violating its probation for the second time since 2019.

“This was a serious and ongoing violation of probation that reflected Carnival’s failure to prioritize compliance with court orders,” assistant attorney general Todd Kim of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division said in a press release. Princess Cruises, in an email statement to Outside, said in part: “While the company’s probationary period has ended, our commitment to compliance and environmental protection is stronger than ever with the many actions put into place across our fleet.”

To be fair, there are a wide array of cruises, from environmentally focused small ships carefully patrolling Antarctic waters in search of wildlife to huge booze cruises with nightly themed parties. While many cruise lines have bad track records with the environment and the cities they visit, smaller ships, generally speaking, cause less of an impact. Meanwhile, a CLIA spokesperson pointed out that the industry has committed to pursue net-zero carbon cruising by 2050.

Still, smaller is not the trend in the industry. Many major cruise lines have recently christened a series of bigger ships whose billion-dollar price tags will take decades to pay off, so they’re pushing hard to get back to business as usual. As these vessels get larger, so too do the accompanying logistical headaches—and not just for sensitive environmental areas, but for the cities that host the behemoths.

Duval Street in Key West is often packed with cruise tourists.
Duval Street in Key West is often packed with cruise tourists. (Paul Harris/Getty)

Many ports, like Nassau in the Bahamas and Saint John’s in Antigua, have been forced to dredge deeper channels to handle the ever-increasing ship sizes—a fate Key West has fought against and so far avoided. According to a 2019 study, a deep-dredge project in Miami that would allow the world’s largest container vessels to dock there killed at least a half million corals in the port. Disney Cruise Lines, which has a private island in the Bahamas for passenger excursions, is in the process of building another outing spot on Lighthouse Point, on Eleuthera Island. The project is estimated to cost between $250 and $400 million, including the construction of a pier over a half-mile of coral reefs and sensitive seagrass beds that could possibly degrade the area permanently according to critics.

Disney Cruise Lines refutes this claim, stating in an email to Outside that the company spent more than three years developing environmental-impact assessments that yielded a pier location intended to avoid coral-inhabited areas. “The project includes the construction of an innovative, open-trestle pier that extends to deep water to prevent the dredging of a ship channel,” a Disney spokesperson also said.

All of these efforts are just to tie a ship up to the dock. Once passengers flood off a gangway, a destination needs to be able to handle the influx, which means retooling tourist businesses around such surges, which often last only a few hours. So instead of prioritizing hotels and daylong hikes, fishing trips, or an evening event, ports of call suddenly find themselves ready with T-shirt shops, quick-drink bars and restaurants, two-hour whale-watching trips, 60-minute tours on personal watercraft, and rows of hawkers selling cheap souvenirs. Many of these businesses pay a commission to cruise lines, if they want the ships to send passengers to them.

In Key West, the cruises coming into port are generally big ships. In 2019, the average one docking at the island carried more than 3,000 people—a high-volume, budget cruise.

“They’ve built these monster ships that are just too big,” says Will Benson, the local fishing guide. “The companies have to force themselves on our community and tourism partners, because you’ve got to have something for these people to do, even if it’s just a cheap ride around town. It’s volume tourism at its worst.”

Benson, who grew up in the Keys, says that during the industry pause the flats fishing directly off Key West was better than it had been in a decade or two. Without cruise ships mucking up the channel, he says, the water was cleaner. “You’ve got a small channel and some massive boats that are coming through every single day, stirring up the bottom and dumping a lot of people onto Key West,” he says.

Fishing Captain Will Benson
Fishing Captain and guide Will Benson says that the waters around Key West became healthier during the cruise ship pause. (Rob O'Neal/The Washington Post/Getty)

Perhaps no destination embodies the imbalance—and economic clout—cruise ships bring to a city more than Juneau, Alaska, a city of 32,000 that accommodated 1.23 million cruise passengers in 2019. Roughly three or four times a day, a cruise ship docks and passengers rush off to see the area as fast as they can. When that happens, it becomes dangerous to paddle in the waters around the port, because boats, ferrying guests to see migrating whales, throw out wakes in every direction.

The regular onslaught of cruise passengers creates several other headaches for locals. One popular shore activity for cruise passengers is a helicopter ride to nearby Tongass National Forest, where they can walk on a glacier. The aircraft create a roar above the landscape. In the Juneau Empire earlier this year, one resident wrote that “the pictures on the wall are never straight from the vibration.”

For locals, it’s a double-edged sword. They rely on the money brought in by the passengers to keep their businesses afloat, but the inundation of visitors for a few hours each day can make tourism seem like any other extractive industry.

“It’s like if you invite five people over to your house,” says Karla Hart, a Juneau resident who recently helped found the Global Cruise Activist Network, an international group of anti-cruise advocates. “You can have a quality visit with those five people. Twenty people, and you might have a good party. But the cruise industry is basically someone putting up fliers and then charging 1,000 people to walk right into your home, and you don’t have any control over it. No one likes that.”

For more than a year, Hart and other locals have attempted to add a ballot measure to the city’s elections that would limit cruise ships docking in the city, a measure much like the one passed in Key West. The group wasn’t able to gather enough signatures, however, in part due to a campaign organized and funded by city business owners, including Laura Martinson, owner of the gift shop Caribou Crossing and cochair of the pro-cruise-ship group Protect Juneau’s Future.

“We’ve been defending our existence as local business owners and tourism [operators],” Martinson told radio station KTOO in April. “What I’m hoping comes out of this, on the other side, is a little bit more community education on what our [tourism] industry actually does bring to the community and how valuable our industry is.”

In Juneau, as opposed to Key West, perhaps it should come as no surprise that the ballot measures failed: its economy is already too dependent on cruise ships, and any attempt to prevent them from coming into port could hit the Alaskan city hard. During the pandemic, for example, Serene Hutchinson, who manages Juneau Tours and Whale Watch—which caters primarily to cruise passengers—did everything within her power to keep the business afloat after she had to refund hundreds of thousands of dollars to clients in 2020. Pre-COVID, she had a staff of roughly 90 people, 14 of whom were year-round employees.

“In March of 2020, I had to lay everybody off,” Hutchinson says. “I even had to lay myself off, and I went and worked at the hospital.”

Plenty of other Juneau businesses have similar stories, a result of the local economic dependence on cruise-ship traffic. Any attempt to curb the industry now will affect too many people, even if the very same people profiting from it don’t always like what the city has turned into. The cruise industry in Juneau, in other words, has become too big to fail.

“The industry depends on the goodwill of the local communities for their guests to have a good time,” says Hart. “But if the industry takes away all of our legal ways of doing something about overcrowding, we as community members can simply let their passengers know that they are not welcome here anymore.”

Ships docked in Juneau, Alaska
Ships docked in Juneau, Alaska, where much of the local economy is dependent on cruise tourism (Sergi Reboredo/VW PICS/Universal Images Group/Getty)

Key West, like many destinations, realizes that it’s at the mercy of tourism dollars. Most locals have jobs connected to the tourism industry and need the constant hustle around town to make ends meet. “We don’t sponge in the ocean anymore. We don’t roll cigars. We provide tourism,” says Steven Nekhaila, a local restaurant owner who’s running for a spot on the city commission this summer to add more business-friendly perspectives to the council. “That’s how people get their dollars down here.”

But even the business community couldn’t reach a complete consensus on the cruise-ship referendum. Nekhaila says it got so heated at times that cruise-ship supporters were reluctant to express their position. “Most business owners were afraid to speak up,” he says. “People were afraid that they were going to be boycotted, or they were afraid of the online mob, because it was, quite frankly, a very angry group, and they had numbers.”

Not all resident business owners were pro-cruise, though. This included Arlo Haskell’s brother, Evan, who is the president of Safer, Cleaner Ships and runs a bicycle shop that rents primarily to tourists, and Benson, the fishing guide, who relies on clients from all over the world to chase tarpon and permit with him on the flats. (Benson’s brother, Jolly, the vice president of Safer, Cleaner Ships, doesn’t rely directly on tourist dollars; he’s an electric contractor in the Keys.)

The two sets of brothers grew up on the Keys together and were part of the driving force behind getting the ballot measure to limit cruises approved. They’re lifelong Conchs, as the native islanders call themselves, and yet that didn’t stop critics of the cruise-ship measures from attacking them and other advocates as wealthy landowners trying to turn Key West into a rich person’s private playground. When I met Will Benson at his home, he’d just returned from taking his wife and kids out onto the flats for the day. He scoffed at the characterization.

“It got dirty, and it got personal,” he told me. “But the locals know us, and we’re an insular island. We protect each other.”

The November 2020 election was rife with controversy, in large part because of a campaign launched by a nonprofit called Protect Our Jobs, Inc., which sent fliers to the doors of Key West voters claiming that the cruise-ship measures would raise property taxes (they didn’t) and that they would defund the police. One headline blared: “There’s a sound downstairs… Will anyone respond to your call? Drastic budget cuts will result in fewer police on the streets. This is what may happen if the cruise ship charter amendments pass.”

“Most voters saw right through the scare tactics,” says Benson. “They were trying to muddy the waters, and it backfired on them.”

After the measures passed, the Miami Herald reported that the cruise industry was affiliated with the misleading mailers. Protect Our Jobs was funded, at least in part, by a Florida political action committee, with lobbyists listed as its corporate officers. Much of the funding behind that PAC, Florida Cruise PC, originated with corporations or organizations affiliated with the cruise industry. For example, $100,000 can be traced back to an address used by the headquarters of the Royal Caribbean Group, one of the world’s largest cruise companies, which is based in Miami but incorporated in Liberia.

Safer, Cleaner Ships spokesperson Arlo Haskell
“As a tourist destination, we don’t need the big ships to thrive,” Safer, Cleaner Ships spokesperson Arlo Haskell says. (Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty)

In an email to Royal Caribbean asking about the funding, a spokesperson sent this statement to Outside, saying that Key West “ranks among their most popular ports” and that in order to “best understand local concerns, and in keeping with our philosophy of continuous improvement, we keep all doors open to engage community stakeholders in conversations that lead to positive outcomes.”

Even the legislative process that led to the final transportation bill that DeSantis signed in June 2021 was mired by controversy. As the bill was making its way through the legislature, the amendment was attached to it at the last minute. Safer, Cleaner Ships, for a time, had hoped that DeSantis would veto the entire bill due to the divisive add-on, but he signed it into law in July. It later emerged in the Miami Herald that the bill passed just four months after the PAC supporting him, Friends of Ron DeSantis, received nearly $1 million in donations from companies owned by Mark Walsh, the operator of Pier B. During the course of four days, between February 28 and March 3, Walsh’s companies made 11 donations to the PAC, according to public campaign-contribution records.

Walsh, in an email comment to Outside, said the companies’ “political contributions were decided prior to legislation and we are glad that legislators and Governor DeSantis support tourism in Florida.” DeSantis didn’t return Outside’s request for comment.

It’s no surprise that Pier B and Walsh are reluctant to let Key West limit cruise-ship operations. For every passenger that disembarks on the dock, cruise companies pay the local pier what’s called a head tax, or dockage fee, which can add up to millions each year. The cruise-industry trade association says that cruise lines spent over $15 million in fees in Key West, according to a 2020 report produced for the association.

Cruise companies cite these fees—in addition, of course, to the dollars that passengers spend in ports—as their way of injecting money into the communities they visit. But by law, at least in Key West, those fees can only be used to pay for services and improvements directly related to the cruise ships, like repairs to the port facility and hiring extra police to patrol when a vessel docks. After associated costs to accommodate the ships, these fees provide less than at first glance.  An independent report commissioned by the city in 2018 found that, after expenses, Key West’s public ports operated at a net loss.

Other vested interests in the cruise ships include the Florida Harbor Pilots Association, which represents captains who bring the ship into port and earn a commission for each boat. The harbor pilots, along with others, were lobbying in Tallahassee as the Florida legislative session wore on in the spring of 2021.

In many ways, the cruise-ship fight is reminiscent of a similar controversy in 2019, when Key West voted to ban the local sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone or octinoxate, chemicals that damage the fragile coral reefs surrounding the island. (Hawaii instituted a similar ban in 2018.) The Florida legislature voted to overturn the Key West ban by passing a law that would prevent local governments from regulating any over-the-counter drugs or cosmetics.

“We have people dictating policy in Key West from northern Florida, which just seems asinine to me,” says Mayor Johnston. “We’re trying to be a place where you raise children and have families. We’re a community first and a tourist destination second, and Tallahassee seems to have lost sight of that.”

A sunset celebration at Mallory Square
A sunset celebration at Mallory Square (Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group/Getty)

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.

Lead Illustration: Jack Richardson