Lots of businesses in Key West have lobbied for years to try to get larger cruise ships to make port calls in Key West. Well, one company is looking the other way, looking to bring in a smaller boat that would accommodate travelers to the Southernmost City.
At 5 p.m. July 9, the Key West Bight Management District Board will take up a proposal from Key West Great Escape to operate a 177-foot "boutique" cruise ship with 40 cabins accommodating up to 80 people. The vessel would come from Marco Island and stay for two nights and dock at the Key West Bight Ferry Terminal at the end of Caroline and Grinnell streets.
Key West Great Escape is asking to set up the three-day tours twice weekly.
Doug Bradshaw, director of port and marine services in Key West, thinks it's a great idea but expects some opposition.
"This would be something new and unique that, to my knowledge, we've never done on a small scale," Bradshaw said. "To us, it gets people into town without cars. It's good for tourism, it's a new revenue stream for the Key West Bight, so it's something we figured was worth looking into and presenting to the Key West Bight board to see if there's any interest in doing something like this."
The Key West Express is the only ferry service running day trips round trip from Key West to Fort Myers Beach and Marco Island. Bradshaw says that service brings around 85,000 visitors to the island annually.
Jodi Weinhofer, president of the Lodging Association of the Florida Keys and Key West, says she doesn't know enough about the proposal to determine if Key West Great Escape's plan is a good thing for the city but will be at tonight's meeting to find out more.
"There are transient spaces at the marina, but I'm not sure they can accommodate 80 or more passengers," she said. "I don't know that the marina is set up for that kind of traffic."
Weinhofer's not sure whether the service, if approved, would take money from hotels, but is concerned that ferry passengers would not pay a bed tax (a per-night tax on lodgings).
"We're never happy about people playing by different rules," she said.
Under the proposal, a five- to 10-year agreement would be set up with Key West Great Escape paying a dockage rate of $30 per foot per month with annual increases dependent on the Consumer Price Index. Passengers would pay a $5 embarkation and disembarkation fee with each trip, and the company would pay a 10-cent-per-gallon fuel surcharge to the city in exchange for using the ferry terminal's fueling system.
Key West Escape would also pay for utilities including electric, water, solid waste and sewage pump-out.
Jeff McDonald, president of Key West Great Escape, declined to comment on the proposal before it was taken up for discussion at tonight's meeting.
While smaller, boutique cruises are popular in the United Kingdom and Mediterranean destinations, it appears they have yet to catch on in the U.S.
The only comparable service in Florida is a much larger cruise ship that operates from West Palm Beach to the Bahamas. Interior cabins cost around $120 to $150, depending on the season, with a deluxe suite nearing the $400 mark. Similar cruise lines run from Washington to British Columbia and Alaska.
The Key West Bight Management District board meets at Old City Hall on Greene Street.