American Cruise Line will start bringing its boutique ships to Mallory Square in December. The ships are 241 feet long and carry a total of 159 people, including passengers and crew. CONTRIBUTED

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into city commission meetings….

The term “cruise ship” appears again on an agenda.

That’s right. One of Key West’s most enduring and amplified arguments over cruise ships — their size and impact, both economic and environmental — threatened on Sept. 14 once again to pack city hall with people on both sides of the ship spectrum.

But then something astonishing happened. The mayor, commissioners, city attorney and representatives from the Key West Committee for Safer Cleaner Ships, which led the charge against cruise ships, agreed that a small ship, operated by American Cruise Lines, should be welcome to dock at Mallory Square.

Charlie Robertson, CEO of the Connecticut-based American Cruise Lines, addressed the commission during a presentation that included no formal vote, but met with enthusiasm from lawmakers.

American Cruise Lines Inc. bills itself as a “boutique cruise company” that operates 17 small, U.S.-flagged cruise ships along the Eastern Seaboard and Western Seaboard as well as along the Mississippi River. The company’s fleet visits 35 states and it wants to bring one of its 241-foot-long ships to Key West’s Mallory dock for a total of 25 visits between December 2023 and December 2024. 

“We have never come to Key West before because it’s been dominated by the large-ship market,” Robertson told the commission. “When this body passed its cruise ship resolutions for Key West, we saw an opportunity for more boutique products like ours.”

Because ACL’s ships don’t venture beyond the United States, “our ships can be smaller without the need for oceangoing capability,” Robertson said, adding that the company also has much shorter runs between ports of call, which enables the company to stay longer in each place and offer more in-depth experiences to its customers, most of whom are retired.

Once finalized, the Key West visit would include options such as: 

  • Truman’s VIP White Glove Experience at the Little White House.
  • Hemingway Rum Distillery and Rodriguez Cigar Rolling Experience.
  • Key West Literary Seminar Walking Tour.
  • Unity Table Culinary Experience at Williams Hall.
  • Dry Tortugas by Seaplane (possible half day excursion, pending overnight docking approval).
  • Key West Ghost Tour at Fort East Martello (pending overnight docking approval).

“Our clients aren’t going to be the ones down on Duval Street all night,” Robertson said. “They’re a more mature clientele, mostly retired and with the means to enjoy one of our cruises.”

Commissioner Sam Kaufman also encouraged Robertson to meet with the city’s charter fishing boats, as the longer port of call would enable cruise ship passengers ample time to book a half- or full-day fishing charter.

The charter boats have never typically benefited from cruise ships, because they’re not here long enough, but this sounds like an opportunity to offer that experience, Kaufman said. And Robertson agreed. 

A seven-night cruise that would include Key West costs about $5,000 per person, Robertson said, adding that ACL’s cruise prices are all-inclusive of alcohol, meals and many excursions. 

The ship carries 109 guests and 50 crew, Robertson said, also hoping for formal permission to stay in port overnight for a total of 34 hours. 

Robertson acknowledged the city’s rule against ships blocking the sunset view at Mallory Square, but added that because ACL’s ships are all U.S.-flagged, there is no immigration or customs requirements whenever it leaves the dock, meaning the ship will easily pull away from the dock at Mallory for about an hour during sunset and thus won’t affect the view or the nightly Sunset Celebration.

With the mayor and commissions offering informal support for ACL’s proposal, Mayor Teri Johnston asked Arlo Haskell, treasurer of Safer Cleaner Ships, to offer his group’s opinion.

“The city’s one-ship policy that allows just one ship per day defines cruise ships at a much larger threshold than ACL’s ships,” Haskell said. “These ships are smaller than what anyone in Key West thinks of a cruise ship.”

He added that ACL ships are a quarter of the length and a quarter of the height of typical ships, which have 30 times more passenger and crew capacity..

“And most importantly, for our environmental impact concerns, these ships have a 7-foot draft, which is again a quarter of what we see with the larger ships at Pier B that have a 25- to 28-foot draft. So essentially, we have no objections to ACL’s proposal,” Haskell said.

Mandy Miles drops stuff, breaks things and falls down more than any adult should. An award-winning writer, reporter and columnist, she's been stringing words together in Key West since 1998. "Local news is crucial," she says. "It informs and connects a community. It prompts conversation. It gets people involved, holds people accountable. The Keys Weekly takes its responsibility seriously. Our owners are raising families in Key West & Marathon. Our writers live in the communities we cover - Key West, Marathon & the Upper Keys. We respect our readers. We question our leaders. We believe in the Florida Keys community. And we like to have a good time." Mandy's married to a saintly — and handy — fishing captain, and can't imagine living anywhere else.