Key West Bike, Walk, Transit and Streets for People Top 10 Stories of 2020 – #1: Cruise Ship Referenda Passing Makes Duval Street & Downtown’s Future Better

By Chris Hamilton, January 4, 2021

The passing of the three Cruise Ship Referenda by Key West citizens gives us an opportunity to remake Duval Street and the historic district into a real downtown, where mom and pop shops thrive and serve the needs of locals, snowbirds and long-stay visitors. It sets the stage for an upcoming Strategic Plan and Duval Street Revitalization Plan processes where the citizens and local business can set the course of downtown’s future instead of catering to the agenda of the corporate mass tourism industry. The referenda’s passage was so bold, it was a shot for locals heard round the world to take back their city and reimagine a better future. THAT’S why this is our #1 story in this year’s Bike, Walk, Transit and Streets for People Top 10 Stories of 2020.

Our Island’s Health and Water is Better Without Big Cruise Ships

It didn’t take very long into the shutdown this spring for people that work the water to report seeing cleaner water and nature coming back with more fish and animals. As the good folks at Safer, Cleaner, Ships put it, Big Ships, Big Problems. The large cruise ships are a public health hazard. All around the world cruise ships fostered Covid outbreaks. They foul our environment and kill marine life. Large cruise ships in Key West’s shallow channel stir up silt plumes that drift onto coral and seagrass beds. Excessive silt kills juvenile conch, lobster, stone crab, fish, and coral. They routinely dump pollutants into the ocean, including bilge water containing oil and grease, raw sewage, food waste, and household garbage. Public health is essential to our economy. Our economy, especially our fishing and maritime sports relies on a healthy marine ecosystem. The referenda’s passage will mean our waters, land and air will all be the better for it.

After six plus months without ships in port, any local will tell you — with certainty — that the water quality and clarity both inshore and off is markedly better. Fishermen are enjoying a more diverse and sizable catch, dive boats have witnessed increased visibility and more abundant marine life, and even marinas have noticed vastly clearer water and the return of species not seen in years so close to the docks.

Billy Kearins, Owner, Coast, 803 Whitehead Street

Our Overall Economy Will Be Better Off Too

Doug Lansky, ReThinking Tourism

With 50 percent of our visitors coming from cruise ships, our downtown economy catered to this group, often led by large corporate interests. Higher rents near the port leading to either chains or trinket shops with inexpensive items made elsewhere, crowded out opportunities for venues that cater to locals and long-stay visitors. Cruise ship kick-back schemes drive profits down for local business owners. When cruise ship visitors spend an average of $32 per person and other travelers spend an average of $550, having the day visitors crowd out others doesn’t make good economic sense.

The economy again goes back to the environment though. People come hear for the crystal clear waters, good fishing, and clean air. If we allow that to be ruined, no one is coming here period.

Only time will tell whether Key West’s bold new tourism move pays off…But for many travelers, the news alone already makes the idyllic southernmost point of the United States all the more worth visiting.

Gilbert Ott, November 10, 2020; Key West Shuns Cruise Ships in Bold New Tourism Move

Duval Street & Historic Downtown Suffer from Mass Tourism

Yogi Berra

Travel research around the globe points to mass tourism or day travelers scaring away higher value overnight tourists and locals too. The old Yogi Berra truism of “Nobody goes there anymore. Its too crowded.” is apt here. Anecdotally we’ve all heard locals and snowbirds say they avoid Duval Street and parts of downtown because of the crowds. People in lodging have heard the same from their guests. So the T-shirt, trinket and quick alcoholic-slushy places have crowded out other businesses and exacerbated the cycle because then the local people say there’s no place worth going to on main street. It’s a viscous downward cycle to the bottom.

“The home-grown economy & culture are why we moved to Key West from the mainland. The stronger they are, the more appealing Key West itself is—and the more interesting it is to the world. Mass tourism only drags us down in the eyes of the very visitors we want to attract.”

Local business owner Louis Raymond
This quick story says that Mass Tourism causes overcrowding, pollution, ricing prices and bad behavior.

People Fondly Recall an Earlier, Simpler Time on Duval

Biking in Key West in the 1970’s.

As the pandemic unfolded in the spring and the wonderfully thoughtful Reimagining Key West Facebook group sprang to life and help spur on Safer, Cleaner Ships, we heard countless stories about a bygone Key West that was simpler, less crowded and more about our residents. And how that attracted amazing long-term visitors who appreciated being among the locals. Here’s how longtime local artist John Martini describes a time many recall fondly:

Towards the middle and later part of the 70’s local entrepreneurs started to open small boutiques, book stores, theaters, guest houses, galleries, restaurants, café and bars. There was a wide selection of stores, many offering a personal and unique approach to marketing. Alongside the already existing business’s things began to brighten for Duval Street.

We moved Lucky Street Gallery from Margaret St. to the 900 block of Duval around 1983. On one side of the gallery there was a swimming suit designer/retailer and on the other a fine Italian restaurant. Next to that was Savannah, an iconic Key West restaurant. Down the block one way was Fast Buck Freddie’s and Environmental Circus and up the street Lawrence Formica’s La Te Da.. and lot’s in between. The visitors, often long stay, were generally engaged and taken with the bohemian atmosphere, the clear air and ocean, the ability to access a wide variety of outdoor activities and often ended the day in one of the many restaurants, bars or clubs. Locals and visitors were comfortable roaming Duval Street day and evening. Local merchants profited and the changes extended further up Duval.

In the late 80’s things began to change. The powers to be decided that mass tourism, with numerous short time tourists over the long stay tourism that existed at the time, would suit their business interests better than the laissez fare nature of what was then a lively Duval Street. Along come the cruise ships around the same period. My Lucky Street Gallery was forced off Duval around 1993 and the street went through a radical change as mass tourism and cruise ship aligned stores and chains replaced the established local merchants. It did not have to be that way.”

Longtime local Artist John Martini

I tried to sum up the thread of what we were hearing at the time with this post: Reimagining Key West – 10 Things We Should Strive For and 10 Ways To Get There, April 22, 2020. The crux of the story was: a simpler, less crowded, locals-centric Key West, a place where Mom n Pop shops rule; a community that respects, protects and celebrates our natural environment; a culture where creativity and the arts flourish; a veneration for our historic district; stewardship of our history, storied characters and One Human Family spirit; a Main Street that brings back locals; and an island that is easy to get around by biking and a downtown less congested with cars. We went on to importantly add:

“We DO want to share all this with visitors. But we want visitors that can appreciate what our island has to offer on its own terms and merits without the expectation of mass culture or consumption that degrades all we’re trying to preserve, protect and enhance. If visitors can’t respect these terms, we should ask them to go elsewhere.”

An Authentic, Real and Local Focussed Duval & Downtown

Most visitors, to any place, not just Key West, crave an authentic, real place that the locals love. So by catering to those of us who live and work here, and that includes people who live here part-time, you get that real, authentic experience that visitors appreciate. They don’t want stuff they can get at home and they really don’t want tourist trap places either. We need to help local, authentic places thrive. 

Mall on Duval brought locals downtown.

That means art spaces, galleries, theaters, whimsical shops, bars, restaurants, dance halls, cabarets, food trucks, clothing, shoes, bakeries, butchers, grocery stores and little bodegas and everything anyone can imagine.

Local focussed should also mean bringing more people to downtown to live because more people downtown lets our local businesses thrive all the more. Perhaps with less cruise ship visitors some downtown buildings can be repurposed for living. A good example is that awful parking lot on Duval at United.

And more people living downtown creates the ability to get around by bike, walk and transit. So local focussed means ‘streets for people’ focussed, which makes for a more interesting place, because nobody thinks car-parking is interesting.

On the God Save the Points Travel Blog they write of Key West passing the referenda: “Sustainable tourism is a key new focus in the modern world, but so is the “quality” of the tourism. How much better would a destination be if it could reduce overcrowding by losing 50% of the visitors, while finding another way to bring back 8% of lost money with a fraction of the people? Much travel research done in Santorini, Venice and other popular cruise ports, all signs point to a new era of sustainable travel, with more focus on creating the best travel experience for the guests which make the most positive impact on local communities.”

The local experience trend means many tourists now want to travel like locals, and to immerse themselves in the culture, traditions, and language of a place. As more and more people grow tired of resorts and standard vacations, there has been a shift towards wanting to see the “real” side of the destinations they visit. And this is a trend that is only going to continue growing. 

Tourism Tiger
Local Color.

The outpouring of good ideas for our future on the Reimagining Key West Facebook page is heartening. In thinking about what to do next, all one need do is peruse the page and pluck some of the best ideas and discussions. We are indeed lucky to have so many thoughtful, creative and passionate people living in Key West, who care about our One Human Family. While we can’t go back to the 1970’s and 80’s, we can plan for a better future. It just so happens that we have two upcoming opportunities to do just that.

City’s Strategic and Duval Revitalization Plans Offer Opportunity to Reimagine Tourism and Our Downtown

Mayor Johnston has touted the need for a City strategic plan and Duval Street revitalization since she first ran for Mayor two years ago. Thanks to her tenacity, this winter the community will get both projects going. Elisa Levy Consulting will be doing the the City’s Strategic Plan following on the heals of the her firm doing a bang up job on the City’s Covid Recovery Plan. If the Covid Plan’s focus on filling empty storefronts; events, fairs and festivals; outdoor business; direct business consulting and assistance; and communication/marketing/branding is any indication of what’s to come in the Strategic Plan, the ability for locals to reimagine tourism downtown will get a big jump start.

With the hiring of best-in-the-industry consulting team of KCI Technologies and Dover Kohl & Partners, likewise the Duval Street Revitalization Plan offers a similar opportunity for local residents and businesses to reimagine Duval Street as more of a Main Street catering to locals, snowbirds and longer-stay visitors instead of needing to accommodate the crush of cruise ship visitors. What would the physical needs of our streets be with a slightly different focus on sustainable, long-term, more authentic tourism?

What these two processes offer is a mechanism with which we as citizens can began to address a different future without so many cruise ship visitors. So the timing is fortuitous.

The loss of the mass tourism, day trippers, cruise ship crowd to our island will be offset in the long run by a better quality of life for our residents and a cleaner environment that will attract travelers that want unspoiled, more real places that aren’t overwhelmed by mass tourism. It offers us a chance to reset Duval Street and downtown to cater to locals and in the end that’s better for everyone. And THAT’S why the Cruise Ship Referenda passing is such a big freaking deal and why it has to be our #1 story of the year.


#2: Teri Johnston’s Re-Election Moves Our Issues Forward (January 3, 2021)
#3: Crosstown Greenway Shows Path Forward for Bikes (January 2, 2021)
#4: Duval Street Revitalization Project Brings Hope to Downtown (December 29, 2020)
#5: Duval and Whitehead Streets Rebuilt and Repaved, But... (December 28, 2020)
#6: Key West Transit Abandons Old Meandering Routes (December 27, 2020)
#7: Covid Recovery Plan’s Focus on Open Streets and Downtown (December 26, 2020)
#8: Some Progress on E-Bikes and Scooters Ordinance (December 23, 2020)
#9: FREE Fare on Duval Loop for Visitors is Back! (December 22, 2020)
#10: The Cow Key Bridge Carmaggedon That Wasn’t (December 21, 2020)

Chris Hamilton
Chris Hamilton

A native of the District of Columbia, where for a couple decades+ he led the nationally renown Commuter Services unit for Arlington County, VA’s DOT, Chris has lived in Key West since 2015. He lives car-free downtown and works and volunteers for a couple non-profits.

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