The Key West Mystique

Key West Island News


Key West Island News connects Key West residents and friends of the island, fosters our One Human Family culture and advances understanding of shared goals for our island community

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Key West cruise ships: Shorthand for we are drowning in visitors

By Linda Grist Cunningham, editor and proprietor

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.


Cruise ships are the target of Key West ire. And the packed-house audience at Monday’s city commission meeting was having none of that accusation. They grumbled — respectfully it should be noted — in opposition when a pro-ship speaker accused them of unfairly targeting cruise ships.

Saying Key West voters aren’t targeting cruise ships is disingenuous. Of course we’re targeting cruise ships. They’re monstrously huge against our small island, owned anonymously, easy to vilify (often justifiably) and a scourge to the environment and quality of life in tourist destinations around the world.

Cruise ships as Key West knows them ought be gone or as the referendums make clear, so tightly regulated that there’s no reasonable way for them to be here. I suspect our island tourism can withstand their demise, even when the transformative weirdness of our post-Covid-19 world lures our current batch of visitors to adventures on other islands. We’ve been without cruise ships for 18 months, since the Covid-19 shutdown. We’ve adapted economically to their absence as record-shattering visitors disgorge onto the island from vehicles and airplanes in search of their own Covid escapes.

Cruise ships themselves aren’t the problem; they’re the shorthand. Cruise ships are a symbol of the much larger, more complicated transformation of our island. We’ve gone in a matter of three decades from “working town where some folks drop in for a while and maybe stay forever” to a prohibitively expensive retro-fit of Orlando Disney’s version of Key West. And since we have few other ways to vent our escalating concerns and frustrations, “cruise ships” makes for a handy shorthand.

What I mean when I grouse about cruise ships is this:

  • Our island is drowning in visitors who consider Key West a “planned resort destination”;
  • Our sense of a shared home town where families flourish is disappearing; and,
  • The escalating environmental impact of our 21st century lifestyles has put the 67-mile-long barrier reef on life support. Curtailing cruise ships will be but a first step toward managing the underlying challenges if we do, indeed, want Key West to be a home town and not a travel destination.


Yeah, it’s way shorter to say “cruise ships.”

Outside Rally

Safer, Cleaner Ships, a Key West grass root organization, rallied outside City Hall prior to the commission meeting.

In November 2020, Key West voters overwhelmingly said “we want safer, cleaner, smaller ships.” Sixty-three percent said cap at 1,500 the daily number of disembarking passengers. Sixty-one percent said prohibit ships with more than 1,300 passengers. And, a whopping 81 percent said ships with the best environmental and safety records should get docking priority. There was but one question Monday night: Would commissioners find a way to implement the referendums’ intents, despite the new State of Florida preemption that forbids Key West from doing just that?

We’ve got your backs. Monday evening (July 12) at its meeting, Key West City Commission, after listening to its attorney’s recommendations and to a dozen local residents who reiterated support or opposition, told the community “we’ve got your backs.” They instructed the legal staff to draft the language for city ordinances that will implement the intent of the three referendums across the three piers used by cruise ships in Key West. They promised the legal staff the resources it would need for what will likely be a heavy-lift project, especially with a turnaround time of August when the commission wants to vote on the ordinances.

And, they acknowledged they needed to prepare themselves and the community for what could well be the staggering costs of the lawsuits that most assuredly will be filed. In 2009, after 14 years of litigation, the city paid $8 million dollars to Duck Tours Seafari to settle a lawsuit growing out of Seafari’s claim it was denied a license to operate because Historic Tours of America had been granted an exclusive license by the city. “This,” said city attorney Shawn Smith, referring to potential legal actions, “will be Duck Tours on steroids.”

I signed the petitions last summer. I voted yes on all three referendums in November. I sent money to Safer, Cleaner Ships. I lament the ways in which the Duval Street district in many places has morphed into a sad and tattered experience for locals and for visitors as shops catered to whatever spare change cruise visitors handed over. I believe the city commissioners are committed to reviving and revitalizing Duval and its ancillary streets.

Limiting cruise ships is a good first step, a shorthand, if you will, for the path a majority of Key West residents have chosen to walk.

But, let me make this point: Be careful what we wish for. We are smack in the middle of summer when the island — even with cruise ships — is supposed to be a bit quieter, more home town than tourist destination. Instead hordes of exhaust belching rental scooters and golf carts, ceaseless airplanes overhead, partying vacation home renters and well-heeled hotel, water sports, restaurant and bar spenders are taxing our fragile ecosystems and infrastructures. Our island home cannot sustain this level of tourism and ensure the delicate balance between home town and tourist destination.

We’re going to have to pick one.


Arlo Haskell at City Commission meeting

Christopher Ellis at City Commission meeting


  1. John Klaman

    My wife and I have a vacation condo in KW. We have been fans of the city over 30 years. Change is difficult. One thing we noticed is the water is better, the marine health is better without the cruise ships. During the onset of Covid the tourism declined. When the roadblock was lifted cars from the mainland streamed to KW. The city businesses on life support dismissed the virus and opened arms to visiting unmasked, ignorant masses. The city and merchants mostly crossed.their fingers and held their breath. In the face of a deadly pandemic many merchants did no mitigation or sham for the show behavior. DeSantis was very proud I’m sure. As for the lack of cruise ships, the impact was healthy and continues to be so. Keep moving to support the KW ecosystem. Block cruise ships. It’s a bold move which is symbolic for the KW of the future.

    • Linda Grist Cunningham

      Well said, John. I think you’ve expressed well the challenges of change here on the island. And, with permanent visitors like you and your wife sharing similar concerns with locals, I feel sure we will find paths forward. Won’t be easy, but sure worth making real efforts.

  2. Bob Hawley

    I guess my wife and I are those horrible visitors Key West wants to discourage. We have been coming to Key West since 2001. We like Key West because it is safe, it is quirky, we love to walk the streets and see all the architecture, etc, Truman Annex is pretty and one can ride bikes almost anywhere. We love the Zombie bike ride in October. Our dog loves to walk in Key West. And yes were enjoy the month of October because one can party and then walk home without having to worry about driving a car. We do not like the scooters, we do not like the t-shirt shops, we do not like the crowded snow-bird season (yes we have been to Key West at times other than October), we do not like the hawkers on Duval, we do not like obnoxious visitors (regardless of whether they arrive by boat or car) and we do not like pretentious. millionaires who gather up all the real estate and then try to keep others from enjoying Key West. We also do not particularly care for the cruise ships. The planes do not bother us at all. It seems, looking at this from afar, both sides want it totally their way. The cruise ships want unrestricted access and the “locals” want the cruise ships gone. Maybe if the two sides could get together and seek some common ground this problem would be mitigated. For example, close Mallory Square pier and end lease for Outer Mole with the Navy. Seems like both of these are within the control of the City and much less likely to incur a successful lawsuit. Let Pier B go. By definition (i.e. now there would be only one pier instead of three), cruise ship traffic would be less. Regardless, I fear the millionaires are going to price Key West out of the reach of middle class. I wish this was not the direction things are heading.

    • Linda Grist Cunningham

      Bob, it sounds to me after reading your post that you two — and the puppy — are exactly the kinds of visitors Key West wants. Y’all clearly understand the island’s culture, its wonderful quality of life and the challenges it faces. Please keep coming. Please continue to make your voice heard. What concerns me greatly is that the frustrations inherent in those challenges is sending a troubling message to island visitors like you. My brother and sister-in-law, both of whom have loved being part of Key West as visitors, are hearing the same message as you are. And, that will not bode well for our future. Thank you for sharing — and I’ll follow up with a column exploring these mixed and unintended messages.

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