Two cruise ships are coming back to a much different Key West on Saturday. Much has changed since they last visited in March 2020. So much.
Most cruise ships are no longer welcome, say more than half of Key West’s voters, who, in November 2020, approved local referendums to drastically reduce the number of ships — and people — that can dock in Key West. Six months later, a new state law specifically voided those and any voter initiatives that seek to restrict maritime commerce in Florida.
The Azamara Quest will dock at 7:30 a.m. Saturday at the city-owned Mallory Pier. With a 1,094-person capacity (686 passengers, 408 crew), the ship meets the city’s new cruise ship size and capacity limits. It is one of only 11 smaller ships that meet the new criteria and are scheduled to visit Key West in 2022.
At 9 a.m. Saturday, the Crystal Serenity will dock at the privately owned Pier B. With a total capacity of 1,695 people (1,040 passengers, 655 crew), the ship, when full, would exceed the city’s new prohibition of ships that carry more than 1,500 people. But the Crystal Serenity is arriving Saturday with only 476 passengers, said John Wells, founder of Caribe Nautical ships’ agent, which schedules and services cruise ships for the port of Key West. Wells has been a vocal opponent of the new limits that would prohibit 95% of the city’s prior port calls.

The Crystal Serenity, shown in Antwerp, Belgium, is slated to dock at Pier B in Key West on Saturday, Nov. 27 with only 476 passengers aboard. With its total capacity of 1,695 people (1,040 passengers, 655 crew), the ship exceeds the city’s new restrictions that are not yet local law. WIKIPEDIA/Contributed
“The combined passenger count of both ships on Saturday is 911,” Wells told the Keys Weekly on Wednesday.
But even if the Crystal Serenity was to arrive at full capacity, the new ship rules haven’t yet been formalized for the privately owned Pier B.
When Key West’s voter initiative was voided by the new state law, cruise ship opponents, led by the Key West Committee for Safer Cleaner Ships, urged city officials to instead turn those referendums into ordinances, which hadn’t been voided by the state law.
Those ordinances are not yet in place.
City Attorney Shawn Smith has been working for months to hire outside counsel to help him draft those ordinances, and then, more importantly, defend them in court. Smith has repeatedly warned city commissioners he anticipates costly lawsuits from private business in response to the city government’s attempt to restrict their operations and reduce their income, especially at Pier B, which was built specifically for cruise ships. In addition, Smith has said, the city has been collecting 25% of Pier B’s cruise ship revenues for nearly 30 years and still has a contract in place with Pier B.

PIer B cruise port, located behind Opal Key Resort, has been vacant of cruise ships since March 2020, but will welcome Crystal Serenity on Saturday. MANDY MILES/Keys Weekly
After months of false starts due to various attorneys’ conflicts of interest, Smith received approval earlier this month to hire a recommended law firm in Fort Lauderdale with no conflicts. Together, they will work to draft the new ordinances.
But those ordinances already are being targeted by another new state bill, Senate Bill 280, which, if passed, would make it much more difficult for a city or county to enact local ordinances that impact business interests.
While the lawyers work to turn the voided referendums into ordinanes, city commissioners have said they will honor the will of the voters, and are refusing to allow larger ships at the two city-managed piers — Mallory Dock and the Outer Mole Pier, which the city leases from the navy.
Leaders of Safer Cleaner Ships have tweeted about the Azamara Quest’s pending arrival, first questioning its COVID safety protocols, then later touting the ship’s smaller size and shallow draft.
The group tweeted on Nov. 23, “Will Azamara Quest be the first cruise ship to flout the Conditional Sail Order and land on the ‘gray list’? Currently sailing from St. Thomas to Miami, she is apparently operating outside CDC protocols designed to protect passengers & port communities from COVID-19.”
Aboard both ships, all crew and passengers are fully vaccinated,” Wells said. “Regular COVID testing occurs on both ships. These are fully screened people as opposed to tourists arriving by vehicle or air. All CDC protocols for reducing the spread of COVID are in place on both ships.”
But city officials in Key West have refused to cooperate with the CDC by engaging in formal COVID agreements with any cruise ships, Wells said.
The Crystal Serenity has signed a formal Memorandum of Agreement with Pier B Corporation in full compliance with CDC directives,” Wells said.
Later on Nov. 23, SCS tweeted, “[Azamara] Quest is actually a great fit for Key West. Smaller, safer, shallow-draft ships like this won’t cause excessive turbidity and threaten our reef & are exactly what Key West voters want. We’d love to see them here, but strongly prefer they follow CDC guidance.”
Wells told the Keys Weekly, “The Azamara Quest has received a CDC-directed agreement with Port of Miami, so they are fully approved by the CDC to operate in the U.S. Key West is the only port in the U.S. that does not cooperate with the CDC,” Wells said.
As for the larger Crystal Serenity, SCS retweeted a Wednesday post by a user called Key West Channel Marker that said, “Will Jack Anderson of Crystal Cruises mention the fact he intends to ignore the will of the people in ports they call on? Will they put profits above the health of Key West’s reefs? Let’s hope they reconsider their stop here Saturday. Locals are pissed.”
The anti-cruise ship sentiment was also evident on Facebook, where some are urging protests and picketing, and are telling the ship via social media it is not welcome.
Key West Channel Marker wrote, “Azamara Quest meets the criteria we voted on and should be welcomed. Crystal Serenity does not, and will not be welcomed. Crystal needs to inform their passengers they don’t care about this island or its waters, they only care about profits. We will be ready.”
User Michael Ritchie wrote to Crystal Cruises, “Are you going to tell your passengers on Crystal Serenity that their ship is not really welcome in Key West this weekend? They might want to know. Better if you cancel the stop — our citizenry voted against ships that size.”

Social media users have been saying the Crystal Serenity cruise ship is not welcome in Key West, prompting concerns about Key West’s reputation as a welcoming island. CONTRIBUTED
Wells said, “Both ships have formal approval from the U.S. Coast Guard to call on Key West.”
Key West restaurateur Bill Lay and other local business owners who would support less drastic reductions in cruise ship traffic are concerned by the potential impact of inhospitable locals on Key West’s welcoming reputation, One Human Family motto and overall tourism economy. Others worry that ship passengers will misinterpret the protests as harassment based on race, nationality or sexual identity rather than as a protest against ship size.
Counter-protests have been discussed to ensure that all passengers feel welcome in the Southernmost City.

“It’s a sad day in our welcoming town, that a group of people feel the need to belittle people visiting our wonderful island,” Lay told the Keys Weekly. “This is just going to be another line of division that seems to be the norm these days, so sad. I look forward to the day that One Human Family means something again.”

Lay added,

“Dear Safer Cleaner Ships, Although I don’t agree with what you are trying to do, I have respected your position. Your message has changed since the beginning, at various times, while mine has remained the same: The working people deserve better.

Your problem is with cruise ships, not the people on them. These guests should be welcomed without malice or discontent.”

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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.