Florida Key West Cruise Ship

Key West is looking to make its island thrive again, using ballot measures during the US Elections to pass laws which shun large cruise ships. For a key destination synonymous with cruising, it’s a bold move, but one which may pay dividends in reinvigorating the local economy.

The cruise industry expressed outrage, even the tourism authorities of Key West are seeking to reverse the measure, but for now, Key West Florida will ban all cruise ships carrying more than 1,300 passengers from docking along its shores. Total daily cruise visitors will also be limited to 1,500, and priority will be given to eco friendly ships.

Local ballot measures which limit ship size, total number of daily cruise visitors and encourage eco friendly protocols passed with 60% approval, in a stunning rebuke to mass market over tourism.

For years, cruises provided a lazy and dependable way for tourism authorities to boost visitor numbers and justify their jobs, so it’s no surprise that Key West Tourism is up on arms over the results.

But once outsiders began crunching the numbers on cruise visitors and whether they make a positive contribution to local economies compared to other styles of travel, the numbers began to look remarkably bleak for those outside the tourism board.

Florida Key West Cruise Ship

Cruises represent 50% of all 1.2 million annual visitors to key west, but less than 8% of income for the island. This represents a lower quality of tourism, with strains on local resources below and above the sea, with little benefit to local businesses.

With covid-19 a key factor on many travelers minds, vacation starved visitors now plan to shun overcrowded destinations in favor of those which offer a safer experience.

Sustainable tourism is a key new focus in the modern world, but so is the “quality” of the tourism. How much better would a destination be if it could reduce overcrowding by losing 50% of the visitors, while finding another way to bring back 8% of lost money with a fraction of the people?

Cruise ship tourists typically have access to buffets on board, in addition to shopping, and only use islands to snap pictures and purchase little trinkets, many of which aren’t locally made, before heading back on board.

Key West found that visitors by all non cruise ship means spend oan average of $550 on the island, whereas cruise visitors only spend an average of $32.

Additionally, if higher value overnight tourists stopped coming because of dwindling natural resources and over crowding due to the large cruise ships, 92% of revenues would plummet, and locals would pay the price.

Much travel research done in Santorini, Venice and other popular cruise ports, all signs point to a new era of sustainable travel, with more focus on creating the best travel experience for the guests which make the most positive impact on local communities.

Limiting access to smaller ships reduces overall visitor counts, but creates more opportunity to attract overnight guests which span out across the island. If the tourism board is no longer subsidizing cruise visitors, there’s more money to attract the more lucrative overnight visitors with airfare deals and stay packages.

If it bumps up the overall enjoyment on the island, the story feeds itself.

a cruise ship docked at a dock

Smaller ships typically have bigger spenders on board who prefer the boutique experience and shun the mass market cruise ships can offer. In covid-19 times, it’s all the more on visitors minds. If Key West goes ahead with plans, it means those cruise guests who do disembark onto the island via these smaller, sub 1,300 passenger ships may spend more than the meager $32 sum experienced previously.

Overnight guests at any destination are typically on the hook for accommodation taxes, and are far more likely to eat out at local restaurants and access transportation services, as well as buy goods, benefiting a variety of businesses on the island, rather than tat salesman nearest the ships.

Only time will tell whether Key West’s bold new tourism move pays off, or survives legal challenges from the very tourism authorities who are supposed to be in charge of protecting the island and the success of local economies. But for many travelers, the news alone already makes the idyllic southernmost point of the United States all the more worth visiting.

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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  1. Standing Ovation to the residences of Key West for voting to limit the cruise ship visitations. Having traveled to Key West numerous times each year since the early 1970’s, the Cruise ships have negatively impacted the Key West experience, atmosphere and the passengers bring little financial benefit to the community. In the last ten years, we have reduced our visits to Key West from four to five trips a year to one trip. We stay in the Harbor area where we see the passengers rush back to the ships to eat from the huge buffets on the ships and not support the numerous restaurants in Key West. We have heard the merchants and restaurant owners complain for the last two decades about the cruise passengers that do not support their economy and they leave tons of trash (brought from the Cruise Ships) on the island. Just look at Duval street, and the change in businesses. All the businesses that survived from the 1970’s and 80’s went away as the t-shirt shops replaced world class galleries (same problem as Lahaina) and restaurants – just one example. So it maybe Covid and/or the lock down of Monroe county that finally brought to the residence’s attention to take positive action to return Key West to the place that made it so famous.

  2. I totally agree with limited cruise ship access. I am not a local but have come here last 10 years. A few times by cruise and last 5 years in a row by flying in and renting. I defiantly invest much more as a visitor when I fly down, and frankly, I feel it is a win/win. We are well treated and it is much more relaxing and enjoyable spending a week or so like a local. I would love to see less cruise ships when I fly in.

  3. I live in central Florida and its about an 8 hour drive to Key West. I have made that drive once , but will never do again. The hotel rooms on the island are super expensive and their is very little to do or see there. Good luck to them.

  4. As a business owner in the city of Key West I can assure you that hundreds of jobs will be lost because of this. These smaller ships that are being promised to come once sailing is permitted again…. many of them are not nearly as environmentally friendly as the larger ones than came into port. Also many of these smaller ships do not yet have Key West on their stops yet. Under these new guidelines (which btw the max number of passengers isn’t just passengers its passengers and crew members) we would have 22 ships TOTAL dock for the year. Yes, the citizens voted, but their was a lot of confusion on what they were actually voting for. Thank you and stay safe everyone!

    1. But you can’t. That’s your opinion, not based on data. That’s simply not what’s happened in communities which have made the change.

      Jobs may change, but often for the better. Higher quality tourism – aka tourists who spend more, and wider across the island – are more beneficial to the broader community. It’s not just people spending $20 on a key west t-shirt and a bottle of water. Sure, a handful of restaurants parked at the port may not do as well, but others elsewhere will. So to will private tour guides, snorkeling expeditions, overnight accommodations, taxi services and so forth.

      Destinations which have reduced cruise tourism haven’t lost significant jobs, and in many ways have improved quality of life for locals.

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