On Election Day, residents of Key West voted to ban large cruise ships from docking in the city. It's a move that will have a ripple effect on the environment, and the future of Caribbean cruises once the industry is up and running again.

Last Tuesday, Key West voters approved three referenda that will ban most cruise ships by major lines from visiting the city. The first referendum, which won roughly 63% votes according to the Monroe County Board of Elections, prohibits cruise ships with more than 1300 passengers from docking in the Keys. The second, which won 61% votes, places a 1500 cap on daily cruise ship visitors. The third, which received the largest support at 81%, will give docking priority to cruise lines with the best environmental and health records

Big brown pelicans in Islamorada, Florida Keys
Big brown pelicans in port of Islamorada, Florida Keys. Waiting for fish at Robbie's Marina ©romrodinka/Getty Images

The bans are in response to the impact large ships are having on the infrastructure and delicate ecosystem of the Florida Keys. When COVID struck and cruise ships were banned, it gave the environment time to recover, and it gave the Keys time to think. Locals formed the Key West Committee for Safer Cleaner Ships. A grassroots initiative that set out proposals for the ballot, and won support from locals, officials and business owners. At the heart of the initiative, is the desire to "balance the limited economic benefits of cruise ships against the larger public health, environmental, and economic interests of Key West citizens."

According to The Impacts of the Cruise Ship Industry on the Quality of Life in Key West report, or the Murray Report, traffic and pollutants from the 390 cruise ships that visit the Keys annually cause "chronic water-quality issues" and kill coral and sea creatures including lobster and conch, threatening the local charter fishing industry too — an industry that supports 8000 jobs in the area. The report lays out the limited economic benefit large cruise ships have on the Keys, arguing that while cruise ship passengers make up 50% of all visitors in Key West, they only contribute to 8% of all visitor spending; spending an average of $32 per passengers, while other tourists spend an average of $550.

Tourists at conch fritter stand on Mallory Square
Tourists at conch fritter stand on Mallory Square ©Matt Munro/Lonely Planet

The residents of Key West don't want an outright ban on cruises. That's why 81% of voters support the measure to prioritize small cruise ships that are safer and cleaner. Ships that tend to attract higher-spending customers, have less of an impact on the environment and will bring fewer crowds to the Keys — a measure that is especially important to locals in the time of COVID.

Speaking to USA Today Arlo Haskell, the committee's treasurer, said: "the people of Key West are thrilled to finally have some common-sense restrictions in place after 30 years of unregulated cruising that has damaged our environment, hampered economic growth, and threatened public health."

Palm Trees on the Beach
Key West in the glow of the morning sunrise ©Crawford A. Wilson III/Getty Images

What does this mean for the future of Caribbean cruises? The Miami Herald reports that 40 of the 50 vessels that docked in Key West in 2019 will be prohibited from visiting again, that includes ships from Norwegian Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean, Disney Cruise Line and Carnival Cruise Line. Luxury cruise lines like Regent Seven Seas, Seabourn and Silversea currently meet the new criteria, which could effectively close Key West cruises off to budget spenders.

The newspaper reports that the measures could face legal challenges as cruise lines seek a compromise. Cruise Lines International Association told USA TODAY they hope to "open dialogue" with Key West and keep it as a "travel partner".

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