Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Cruise ships at centre of controversy in Key West

Cruise ships at centre of controversy in Key West

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Founder of the Key West Committee For Safer Cleaner Ships, Arlo Haskell, looks on as a US Coast Guard cutter (right) sails past a docked cruise ship in Key West, Florida, on April 12. AFP

Cruise ships at centre of controversy in Key West

The island-city of Key West off the southern tip of Florida invites visitors to stroll slowly, enjoy turquoise waters and take in the sunset. But according to some residents, that idyllic peace is endangered – by lumbering, tourist-filled cruise ships.

The huge vessels bring thousands of visitors every day to the small city of 26,000 inhabitants, whose quaint, often pastel-coloured Victorian homes line leafy, walkable streets.

Following a drawn-out local battle, the cruise tourist numbers are now down, but many residents say more still needs to be done.

While many businesses depend on the tourist throngs, residents such as Arlo Haskell find the ships to be a nuisance and believe they cause environmental harm. As a result, he founded the Safer Cleaner Ships non-profit.

“These cruise ships are an extraction industry that is profiting off of the beauty in Key West while harming that beauty and degrading the experience for everyone else,” Haskell said.

In 2020, his association put forth three local referendums: one to limit the size of cruise ships, another to allow no more than 1,500 people a day to disembark and a third to be able to prohibit boats that do the most damage to the environment.

The three proposals, each approved by between 60 to 80 percent of voters, were ratified by the city council. It was a victory for Haskell – or so he thought.

Then in June 2021, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a law suspending the measures, arguing that voters could not meddle in matters of maritime trade.

Local businesses, including ones also owned by the owner of Pier B – a huge beneficiary of the cruise ships as one of the city’s main docking locations – had donated almost $1 million to a political campaign committee supporting the governor, according to the Miami Herald.

Public docks closed

Relying on a bit of unexpected economic data, Safer Cleaner Ships returned to battle following DeSantis’ move.

The info showed that cruise ship suspensions during the pandemic did not sink local finances.

To the contrary, in 2021, the city collected 25 percent more sales taxes than in 2019, before Covid.

Hotels and restaurants seem to have taken advantage of the fact that Florida promoted its open businesses in the middle of the pandemic while other states imposed rules and closings.

The city administration last month decided that since Key West cannot limit the number of cruise ships, it would close its two public docks.

Now cruises can only park at private Pier B, which welcomes only one cruise ship per day. The era of two to three ships arriving daily is over.

The move has been a blow to some businesses.

Although cruise tourists spend only a few hours in the city and usually eat before disembarking – generating little income for restaurants and hotels – they do buy souvenirs and snacks.

The visitors support the likes of tchotchke shops, ice cream parlors and tourist destinations, such as the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum where the US writer lived between 1931 and 1939, according to Mayor Teri Johnston.

Finding balance

One morning last week, the streets of Key West were nearly deserted. Vanessa Wilder manned her downtown bike rental stand, waiting for the first passengers to disembark from a newly arrived cruise.

“The main shops and the bars down here, we thrive off of these cruise ships,” she said.

“If we didn’t have them, a lot of businesses around here would have to shut.”

Despite his victories, Haskell maintains that things should move one step further, with cruise ships at the private dock not allowed to exceed a size specified by residents.

The boats, according to Haskell “do tremendous damage to our ecosystem” by clouding the water, which endangers the survival of corals.

But Scott Atwell, spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Key West, said the evidence wasn’t so clear.

“We do not have specific studies on whether the cruise ship turbidity is any different than natural turbidity and whether turbidity from the ships’ channel reaches our coral reefs in a detrimental way,” he said.

In the meantime, Key West’s city council has decided to monitor water quality and also support coral restoration under an initiative that charges a fee to Pier B for disembarking passengers.

“We don’t want to get rid of the cruise ships but bring them into a moderate level so that we have good economic conditions and we also have good quality of life for our residents,” Johnston, the mayor, said.

MOST VIEWED

  • Joy as Koh Ker Temple registered by UNESCO

    Cambodia's Koh Ker Temple archaeological site has been officially added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List, during the 45th session of the World Heritage Committee held in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on September 17. The ancient temple, also known as Lingapura or Chok Gargyar, is located in

  • Famed US collector family return artefacts to Cambodia

    In the latest repatriation of ancient artefacts from the US, a total of 33 pieces of Khmer cultural heritage will soon return home, according to the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts. In a September 12 press statement, it said the US Attorney’s Office for the

  • Tina rebuffs ‘false claims’ over falling paddy price

    Agriculture minister Dith Tina has shed light on the trade of paddy rice in Battambang – Cambodia’s leading rice-producing province – in a bid to curb what he dubs a “social media fact distortion campaign” to destabilise the market. While acknowledging that the prices of paddy

  • Cambodia set to celebrate Koh Ker UNESCO listing

    To celebrate the inscription of the Koh Ker archaeological site on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, the Ministry of Cults and Religion has appealed to pagodas and places of worship to celebrate the achievement by ringing bells, shaking rattles and banging gongs on September 20. Venerable

  • Kampot curfew imposed to curb ‘gang’ violence

    Kampot provincial police have announced measures to contain a recent spike in antisocial behaviour by “unruly’ youth. Officials say the province has been plagued by recent violence among so-called “gang members”, who often fight with weapons such as knives and machetes. Several social observers have

  • PM outlines plans to discuss trade, policy during US visit

    Prime Minister Hun Manet is set to meet with senior US officials and business leaders during his upcoming visit to the US for the UN General Assembly (UNGA), scheduled for September 20. While addressing nearly 20,000 workers in Kampong Speu province, Manet said he aims to affirm