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An Open Letter to Historic Tours of America

In a recent email to the voters of Key West, Historic Tours of America sent out a response letter to those who signed a petition and indicated that they would vote ‘yes’ on the proposed cruise ship referendum. As a citizen of Key West, please accept my response.


Now, I make no claims to be an economist, so my statements on that topic are simple observations and reflections. However, as a citizen of Key West, as it is for most locals, my family income is strongly tied to the tourism industry. As such, it is something I look at and consider strongly and without bias. I am however a marine biologist, science educator, dive instructor, captain, and one who has spent countless hours on our reefs and waters and has seen first-hand the impact and turbidity from these ships as well as the decline of our reefs.

A Plea For The Maritime Industry

One of the main concerns of those in opposition to the referendum is the concern for job losses; and rightly so. But I feel there is a group that has been overlooked and forgotten, one that the HTA letter makes reference to. Our maritime industries. The letter speaks specifically of the commercial lobster and fishing industries, but let us not forget the recreational fishing guides, diving industry, eco-tourism, and many others that rely directly on the oceans for their livelihoods. What do you think happens when the reefs die and the fisheries collapse? That industry lives and dies with our reefs, if it goes, so too does the jobs and the livelihoods of those families. I hear no cries for them. Do they, we, not have a voice? 

What about the impact on the Key West economy? The ripple effect from the loss of that industry would certainly be felt across every other industry in Key West. If those jobs die, the fisherman, divers, and those who are drawn here by our reefs will no longer come here, stay in our hotels, eat in our restaurants, or drink in our bars. You refer to the economy as a three legged stool and suggest that simply asking for ships that are cleaner and safer for our citizens, guests, and ecosystem would somehow “knock one of the legs out,” and that it “is not fair, nor good planning.”  Well, what about the legs of the maritime folks? Where do we, fit in? Is it good planning to ignore an entire sector of the economy? Especially the one that makes Key West so unique. 

An Ecological and Historical Perspective of Cruise Ships In Key West

Major cruise ship travel to Key West started in 1984. The reefs in Key West were already under a major decline, down from 50% hard coral converge in the 70’s to around 25% coverage by the early 80’s. The reefs though were able to maintain that level until the mid 80’s. From then until now our coral coverage has declined sharply and is down to barely 5% by many estimations with little new coral growth and many diseases now plaguing the reefs, many of which are directly related to human fecal bacteria; and this does not begin to consider the effects of sedimentary fallout from the large turbidity plumes caused by these ships when they squeak into our channel. This sediment covers the reefs, blocks the sun, and prevents the corals from photosynthesizing; Something they must do to live. 

In the 70’s and 80’s the standards for water treatment and dumping practices were far more lax, so one can only imagine the damage those initial ships did to the reefs during those initial days. Even today though, the cruise industry is constantly being levied with fines for illegal dumping of waste water. You claim to believe that cruise ships “should have sterling environmental records.” Well, we 100 % agree with you. But, there goes Carnival and many others who frequent the port. 

You said that you “don’t know how that would be measured,” well it already has, by a group called Friends of the Earth, who has conducted these ratings since 2009 using various data sources including industry and government data. Though, the grades aren’t favorable to the larger ships you seem to want to protect. Carnival Cruise lines received the worst grade of them all receiving F’s across the board, aside from the D they received for their air pollution reduction efforts. In fact some of the most frequent ships to Key West scored a D or below. Carnival, Holland, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, MSC, even the so-called “greener” cruise line, Virgin, scored a D or less. Holland and Carnival were even noted for being fined for criminal violations. The exception was Disney who received a B-.

Now, to be fair, I always teach my students that correlation does not equal causation. To find causal factors one must do research and isolate variables. But, the correlation between the coral die off and the cruise ships is pretty convincing when one considers the multiple factors combined with these correlations. To me, from a scientific perspective, the evidence is very strong. Are the ships the smoking gun, of course not. But, it’s something we can more easily fix than other more global sources of stress. 

Let us set aside the pollution issues for now. There is also the matter of the turbidity plumes and an argument if the ships stir the bottom when entering our channel or using our port. Using the cruise-industry-standard data set published by Cruise Industry News (CIN), which includes length, draft, width, and person capacity, among many other metrics, and when linked with data set up in a database with the roster of prior-year ship calls provided by City of Key West Port Operations, you get an average depth of 25.9 feet of draft. The controlling depth in the harbor is 28.5 feet, and nearly half of ship calls are made by ships drawing 26-28.5 feet. The power required from the ships thrusters to move these massive ships is immense. Many aerial images have shown the plume being drug out to the reef from the port or onto the reef from the ship entering the channel. When we look at the current patterns in Key West and consider that strong tidal flows it’s easy to see how this sediment can make its way to the reefs. Even on days ships are not in town when the tide shifts and the Gulf waters, which tend to naturally be more turbid, flow out towards the reefs, there is a notable decline in visibility. When the ships are in town this is far worse with visibility at times falling to almost zero. Speak with any captain or diver who has been in or on the water over this summer with no ships. The common message is that we haven’t seen this much clear water for this length of time in a very long time. Again, this is correlative, but still pretty convincing. 

A Look at Reality vs Hyperbole

You said that “We believe that Key West should band together and not tell all cruise ships they are no longer welcome.” Again, this is not a ban on all ships, just those who are damaging our environment or have poor health records. Roughly 35 ships qualify under the 1300-person capacity and the industry itself has already began to shift towards smaller, more boutique style ships. The average draft of those ships are 17.7 feet. This was easily determined by examining all scheduled itineraries for Caribbean ports for 2020 (pre-Covid) then matching those ships up with the CIN data. 

You state that “If one can accept the reality of the argument that there is not a major impact from cruise ships.” Well first, you have misused the term “reality.” Without getting Cartesian about it, reality refers to things that actually exist, not of one's opinions, as is the case with this statement. First, one must set aside the known environmental impacts and then the obvious link our economy has to the marine environment, especially that of the maritime industries, before we can make such a claim as there not being an impact. 

You claim (in all caps nonetheless) that “IT IS A FACT … the size limitation being asked for in the referendum will eliminate practically ALL ships currently coming here.” Where is your evidence for this? Or, is this simply more conjecture and hyperbole meant to scare the citizens of Key West? The data we provided here is from the cruise industry and seems to rebut your claim. But still we find common ground. You say that “there are some cruise ships that have a sterling record of environmental practices and that many of the newer ships being built have state-of-the-art systems that make them operationally cleaner than similar on-shore facilities.” Sure, just not many of the ones that come here. We will open the doors to those ships with these referendums. That is the point, we select only for those ships with such records. And you are correct in saying we should all band together, but we should do this for the longevity of the island as a whole, not the benefit of the few. As you said: “In short, the bad ones [ships] are getting just what they deserve.” 

You claim that “the referendum questions, as written, would eliminate most of the ships that now come to Key West.” Even if this were true, which it is not, it would leave the door open for better ships with passengers that would spend more money. Something you pointed out in your letter. So isn’t this a good thing?

“A Comment On The Future”… But, Whose?

I am looking at what is best for all citizens of Key West, and all businesses; and I think that is where the difference in opinion lies. The “comment on the future” your letter title refers to seems to be more of a comment on your bottom line. So I have to ask, what about the bottom line of those many businesses who do not benefit from the ships? What of the bottom line of the industries that will go under should the reefs die off? The fishing guides, the diving industry, eco-tourism, and all who rely on a healthy marine environment. What of their longevity and livelihoods? They stand to lose the most. 

You clearly state that “passengers that disembark in Key West generally stay isolated in the first five or six blocks of Duval Street.” So then they are favoring very few businesses, especially those belonging to HTA. Most places I have seen with cruise ships ports have vendors with bicycle rentals, cabbies, pedicabs, and other transportation options ready to hurry guests off across the island or city. But strangely, none of that happens here. Can you provide valid reasons for this? And since it is your “business to know,” you “know” that passengers don’t venture far, and that “some passengers may make it all the way over to the Bight and a few walk down to the Hemingway House.” Well, this contradicts a statement put out by the Hemingway House stating that they receive a significant amount of their businesses from the ships. So which is true?

The author of this letter writes that independent of cruise ships, “locals do not frequent Duval Street as they used to before the New Town shopping and the internet.” Where is the supporting data for this? I know plenty of locals that go to Duval Street and avoid it during cruise ships being in town. As far as shopping downtown goes, you may be correct on that, but the reason is not New Town or the internet, but more the fact that Old Town has been sold off to the business pandering to tourists. The mom and pop shops of old have been replaced by $5 t-shirt and souvenir stores. Where exactly would you like the locals to shop, and for what items? A tacky shirt with Key West written across the front? We shop in New Town and online because there are few other options. 

Your letter mentioned that the Mallory Square dock has “become increasingly obsolete to usage by many ships because it is too short.” So, the ships then must use the Navy Mole Pier but are unable to walk through Navy property so HTA receives $5 per head to take these passengers on their Conch Train off property and then let them off perfectly situated near so many HTA attractions. So why not drop them mid-city so other businesses can benefit from their patronage? More to the point, I feel that the concern here is really a decrease in ship size would lead to more usage of Mallory Square affecting that revenue stream from the train. At $5 a head HTA receives $50,000 per 10,000 guest. The number of passengers that go through the Mole Pier is multiples more than that. So again, is this a personal interest, or a public one?  

You say that “ tourism makes this a pretty nice place to live.” True, it is our economic basis. But, Cruise ships do not equal all tourism, it’s a fraction of the total. Moreover, nobody is trying to ban all ships nor is this an attack on tourism. If anything, it’s an attempt to preserve one of our most valuable resources and strongest drawing power, our oceans and reefs. Look at almost all TDC advertisements, it’s of the blue waters, diving, fishing, sailing and snorkeling. This is something that even benefits you, perhaps indirectly, but it does. We cannot afford as an island to be so myopic. 

Fear Mongering and Misinformation 

The consistent claim that these referenda would, as you put it “destroy businesses providing good jobs paying millions of dollars into our community” is nothing more than hyperbole and fear mongering, intended to frighten and mislead the public. The narrative that “taxes will need to be raised or city services reduced” has been debunked from statements from city officials. What’s troubling to me is that you must know it’s false. The cruise ship fees collected are used to fund the port, nothing more, because that is the Federal law! The officers who would lose their post would not lose their jobs. Our police department is short staffed as is and the chief has already stated that the officers would simply be moved to new posts to fill slots he needs filled. But again, the port would remain, the ships would just be different. 

I also find it appalling that you actually try to convince the citizens that our city would cut funding to the police or fire departments. If it were true that taxes to the city would be lost and budgets cut, and it’s not, I doubt the city would cut these vital services. This begs to me the questions: 1) how little do you think of our elected officials? 2) How naive do you think we citizens are, and 3) what is the moral fabric of one, especially in such a small community, that would try such devious and intentional deception of their fellow citizens? 

The title of your letter is “A Historical Perspective of Cruise Ships In Key West And A Comment on the Future.” I would imagine that HTA above all stands to lose the most from this referendum. It’s doubtful though that HTA, or any other business, would need to do little more than make small adjustments to their business models. I personally have more faith in our city and its businesses than that. But again I echo the concerns of so many in the maritime industry when I say, what about them? Adjustments can be made to most business models. If the reefs die, there is no pivot point for these folks. As citizens of this beautiful island paradise we are all lucky enough to call home, the future we need to be concerned with is that of all citizens of Key West, not just the few. 

Shawn Martin, M.Sc


Surfrider Foundation, Florida Keys