KEY WEST, Fla. — Key West welcomed cruise ship visitors Sunday, for the first time since before Hurricane Irma struck the Florida Keys Sept. 10.
The Empress of the Seas, with 878 passengers and about 600 crew, docked at Key West’s Pier B, one of three port facilities adjacent to the island city’s historic downtown area.
While Hurricane Irma caused varying degrees of damage along the 125-mile Florida Keys island chain, Key West and the northernmost island of Key Largo reported the fewest impacts.
Officials say the resumption of cruise ship port calls is significant for the region’s tourism-based economy, and vital for residents whose livelihood depends on serving visitors.
“Being a tourist-based economy, we need our visitors to come to town, and that is our primary economy,” said Key West Mayor Craig Cates, who was on hand to welcome passengers and ship officers. “They come here to see our beautiful resources, our beautiful town and architecture — and the servers, the bartenders, the hostesses, everybody, depends on them.
“The people need to go back to work, and this is a huge part of our recovery,” Cates said.
Keys county and tourism officials are to conference Monday to discuss formal opening dates for visitors to return to the Keys. Electrical and water restoration is almost complete.
In addition to the port, Key West International Airport has reopened for commercial service. Officials say most hotels and visitor facilities in Key West have recovered and are resuming normal operations.
A number of Keys special events scheduled for mid to late October — including Key West’s Fantasy Fest, Marathon’s Stone Crab Eating Contest and Key Largo’s Humphrey Bogart Film Festival — are to take place as planned, according to organizers.