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.
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.
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.