In the presidential election on November 3, 2020, Key West, Florida voters enthusiastically approved ballot questions that would restrict the number of daily cruise ship visitors, ban vessels carrying more than 1,300 passengers, and prioritize docking for cruise lines with the best health and environmental records.
At the time, Cruise Radio described the move as “giving the middle finger to the cruise industry.” Now, a Republican State Senator is seeking to overturn that vote by promoting a bill that would bar local governments from regulating Florida’s seaports.
The bill’s content would make its effect retroactive, which would immediately overturn Key West’s enacted restrictions on cruise ship port calls.
If passed in the Florida House and Senate and signed into law by Florida Governor Ron Desantis, the bill introduced by Senator Jim Boyd would take away the ability of local governments to impose a wide variety of regulations on any of the state’s 15 seaports, including restrictions on the size and types of vessels and the number, origin, or nationality of passengers.
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In November, Key West voters made their intentions clear. Residents of the popular Florida port voted 63 percent in favor of limiting daily cruise ship visitors to 1,500. About 60 percent said yes to prohibiting larger ships and over 80 percent agreed that the best cruise line corporate citizens should get the first pick of docking assignments.
The issue has deeply divided area citizens, with tourism-dependent business owners and workers predicting financial hardship as a result of the restrictions. On the other side, those in favor of reining in the cruise industry claim large ships have a negative effect on the island’s culture and environment. It’s a common divide in major cruise ports around the world.
The proposed bill argues that the power to regulate seaports should belong to the federal and state governments because “the economic impact of a seaport extends far beyond the boundaries of the local jurisdiction in which the port is located, materially contributing to the economies of multiple cities and counties within the region and to the economy of the state as a whole.”
According to the Royal Caribbean Blog — an unofficial fan blog not affiliated with Royal Caribbean International — the group behind the successful ballot proposal, the Key West Committee for Safer Cleaner Ships, said they expected a legal challenge like this to occur after the referendum was passed.
“While we expect corporate powers to challenge the new laws in court and in the monied halls of Tallahassee, one thing is certain: the City Commission now has an unquestionable mandate to defend this legislation against any and all opponents,” the group stated.
As reported by The Capitolist, Boyd’s proposed bill was a major topic of discussion at a recent meeting of local government and agency officials.
“A large portion of our community voted these ordinances in and now they’re at risk,” Greg Veliz, Key West’s City Manager told the publication. “We need to at least protect the city’s right to govern whether or not cruise ships should be regulated or not.”
During the run-up to the ballot vote, a non-profit group called Protect Our Jobs warned Key West voters of tax increases if the cruise ship industry was limited, and equated approving the referendum questions to “defunding the police.”
A legal tussle began before the election, when Pier B Development, which operates one of Key West’s port facilities, filed a lawsuit against the city and the Committee for Safer, Cleaner Ships. Pier B first tried to have the questions removed from the ballot, but its efforts were denied in two different courts.
On September 29, 2020, Monroe County Circuit Judge Bonnie Helms said she would schedule a jury trial on the issue sometime after the election.
In 2019, nearly 1 million people visited Key West via cruise ship — almost half the total number of overall tourists. But according to an Oxford Economics study conducted on behalf of Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), cruise passengers are only responsible for 7 percent of total tourist spending at America’s southernmost destination.
Florida’s next legislative session is scheduled to start on March 2.