Cruise ships to return to Key West earlier than expected
Cruise ships to return to Key West earlier than expected:-Good news, cruisers: It looks like Irma-hit Key West will be back on cruise ship schedules far sooner than expected.
Royal Caribbean said Thursday it had been cleared to return to the destination as early as this weekend — weeks earlier than it expected.
Royal Caribbean recently had canceled all of its Key West calls through the middle of October, citing the impact of Hurricane Irma. But Thursday, it said many of the canceled calls would be put back on the schedule, starting with a visit Sunday by the 1,840-passenger Empress of the Seas.
A massive cleanup effort has been underway in the Keys since Irma hit the archipelago Sept. 9, and as of early Friday, it officially remained closed to visitors in its entirety. Florida Keys Tourism Development Council spokesman Andy Newmantold USA TODAY on Friday that although some parts of the Keys still are recovering from severe damage, other parts, including Key West, are basically ready to welcome back tourists.
“There’s very little structural damage in Key West, and … the shops are reopening on Duval Street, the restaurants are reopening,” Newman said.
Newman said the two biggest challenges for Key West after Irma — the loss of electricity and access to clean water — had been addressed. Power is back up pretty much everywhere in Key West, and a boil-water order was lifted Thursday, he said.
Key West was affected far less by Irma than parts of the Keys farther to the east where the storm’s eye made landfall. Officials debated how soon to reopen it to tourists, given that the resulting influx of travelers on the Florida Keys Overseas Highway to Key West could hinder the recovery efforts in harder-hit areas. As recently as Thursday morning, the Keys tourism site said Key West aimed to be back open for tourists by Oct. 20 — in time for the city’s big Fantasy Fest event.
Newman noted that a return of cruise ships to Key West wouldn’t impact harder-hit parts of the Keys, as the visitors wouldn’t stray beyond the town.
“People pour out into Old Town Key West for five, six hours, and then they get back on the ship and leave. In terms of taxing the infrastructure, it’s very minimal,” he said.
Other cruise lines that canceled upcoming calls at Key West in the wake of Irma include Carnival, which normally has two or more ships visiting the town each week. As of Friday morning, a travel advisory on Carnival’s website showed all Key West calls for the coming week as canceled and replaced by other ports. A spokesperson for Carnival did not immediately respond to a request for more information.
Key West is one of several major cruise destinations that took a hit from Irma. Even more affected were St. Thomas and St. Maarten — the Dutch side of the island of St. Martin.
St. Thomas and St. Maarten were devastated by the storm, which roared across the Caribbean two weeks ago. Some officials hinted it could be several months before they are ready to receive tourists. In an interview with NPR last week, the governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands said he hoped St. Thomas could be back up and running for tourism by January.
In addition to Key West, St. Thomas and St. Maarten, cruise ship destinations affected by Irma included St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands; Barbuda; St. Barts; and Tortola in the British Virgin Islands.