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Key West voters switched to cruise control. The industry, of course, is applying the brakes | Opinion

Carl Hiaasen
·4 min read

A spark of old-fashioned democracy flared in Key West last fall, but the Big Government Republicans in Tallahassee are working fast to extinguish it.

Lawmakers have filed a bill that would nullify the outcome of a November election in which residents of America’s southernmost town overwhelmingly voted to limit the size of cruise ships using their seaport, and to restrict the number of passengers allowed to swarm the streets every day.

Local backlash had been building for years as the deep-hulled cruise liners muddied Key West’s legendary harbor and surrounding azure waters. Near-shore reefs were being smothered by silt, which affected fishing and diving.

Nearly 1 million cruise passengers were arriving annually, but they didn’t rent hotel rooms, ate almost all their meals on the ships and spent most of their eight-hour stay in souvenir shops and bars on Duval Street.

Before the pandemic shut down the cruise lines, a busy day at the piers near Mallory Square meant as many as three huge ships and more than 6,000 passengers — a pale stampede of chipper pilgrims coming down the gangways in search of rum drinks and witty T-shirts about rum drinks.

While destinations like Miami or San Juan can absorb thousands of tourists in a single surge, Key West is small, only about seven square miles. The historic Old Town district was overrun daily and, worse, the harbor channels were being churned to zero-visibility by the ships’ giant propellers. (One of the liners, the Disney Magic, is 84,000 gross tons and longer than three football fields.)

When the COVID outbreak closed the Keys, a group called the Key West Committee for Safer, Cleaner Ships began a petition drive. One study found that while roughly 50 percent of all visitors arrived on cruise lines, their spending accounted for only about 7 percent of tourist revenue.

The industry countered that its passengers “spend more per hour,” probably because they’re rushing to get back on board for the buffets.

Despite a sleazy scare campaign bankrolled by the cruise companies, three cruise-related referendums passed easily. Under the new laws, no ship with more than 1,300 passengers can dock at the port, only 1,500 total passengers can disembark daily and cruise companies with top environmental and health records will be given priority.

Public safety is a key issue because the COVID infection rate in Monroe County remains high. The virus has infamously thrived aboard passenger liners, and the hospital in Key West has only nine ICU beds.

The cruise industry wasn’t happy about the election. All the big players — Carnival, Disney, Norwegian Cruise Lines — were making big bank with little Key West on their itineraries.

What do you do when locals rise up? Go to Tallahassee and buy some Big Government. Hire lobbyists to write a law that takes the power away from voters, and then find some obedient lackeys in the Legislature to file it.

First on the cruise lines’ Lackey List was Sen. Jim Boyd, a Republican insurance executive from Bradenton. The bill he submitted would bar local governments from regulating “maritime commerce” at their own seaports, retroactively negating the Key West referendums.

Conveniently for Boyd, there’s no cruise port in his coastal home district. Bradenton residents would have little enthusiasm for annually unleashing a million day tourists on their streets.

The same can be said for North Fort Myers, home of Rep. Spencer Roach. He co-filed a bill identical to Boyd’s in the state House, written by the same cruise-line lobbyists.

None of the lawmakers who actually represent the people of Key West are trying to wipe out the city’s election results. It’s only distant politicians hoping to chum up campaign donations from Carnival and Disney.

In February, the Key West City Commission unanimously approved a resolution asking the Legislature to respect home rule, asserting that the proposed cruise-ship law would “deny the will of local voters at the expense of the environment.”

Also opposing the Boyd bill is the Florida Port Council, the primary lobby group for the port industry. A spokesman said that the move to remove local control of seaports is “too broad and frankly unnecessary.”

No cruise liners have docked at Key West in a year, and the fishing guides and boat captains are amazed at how fast the waters have cleared up. When I was on the island last weekend, it was packed — hotels, restaurants, gift shops, dive boats, parasailing trips, backcountry tours.

Naturally the dumbest subsection of tourists acted as if the pandemic was over, but most of the locals were safely masked up.

And, happily, busily making good money thanks to sunny skies and gorgeous blue water — with nary a single 900-foot cruise ship in sight.