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Cruise Chasm in Key West

Few subjects touch a nerve in Key West quite like cruise ships. The city is heavily debating whether to even study widening the main channel leading to the city’s ports.

A wider channel would accommodate larger cruise ships than Key West can currently handle. Proponents of channel widening believe the study will support the move. They say Key West needs a wider channel in order to maintain its current cruise passenger business.

While Key West will never accommodate the biggest ships, which carry 5,000 or more passengers, even cruise lines’ midsized ships are growing. “The ships that visit right now are being replaced by ones that are slightly longer and slightly larger,” says John Dolan-Heitlinger, president of the Florida Key West Seaport Alliance, a business group advocating for channel widening. Winds or currents across the channel make it unsafe for the larger ships, leading fewer to put the city on the itinerary. In 2012, 332 ships visited the city, bringing about 811,000 passengers, according to the city. That’s down substantially from 2003, when 540 ships brought more than 1.1 million passengers.

Opponents of channel widening — who also, for the most part, oppose taxpayers paying for the study — are concerned that widening the channel could disrupt endangered coral, decrease water quality and negatively impact fishing in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, where the channel is located.

Cruise ship passengers spend about $23.7 million annually in Key West, but overnight visitors have a $659.3 million total economic impact, according to research by sociologist Ross Klein, a professor at Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. The ships bring large crowds onto Duval Street (which residents now avoid) and, some business owners say, chase away those overnight visitors, who spend more time and money in the city. On the other hand, research from the Keys’ Tourism Development Council shows that 13% of Key West’s overnight visitors first came to the city on a cruise.

How politically charged is the issue? The city commission decided to let voters in October make the call on whether to ask for a three-year, $3-million study from the Army Corps of Engineers.  

Even if widening eventually is approved, it’s at least a decade away and will cost an estimated $36 million.