The arrival of tourists this weekend signaled an unofficial opening of the Keys.
On Sunday, the first cruise ship returned to the Florida Keys after Hurricane Irma struck the region. Royal Caribbean’s Empress of the Seas docked in Key West — one of the cities that suffered the least amount of damage.
“We can’t wait to show them that we’re still here, and we’re open for business,” Charles Fraga, the manager of Sloppy Joe’s restaurant, told The Miami Herald.
In a statement, Key West Mayor Craig Cates stressed the importance of a return to normalcy. “Being a tourist-based economy, we need our visitors to come to town,” Cates said. “The people need to go back to work, and this is a huge part of our recovery.”
Cates greeted the first 880 people to arrive in the Keys after Irma, and many businesses opened for the occasion, too. According to USA Today, Old Town Trolley Tours began operating their 15 trolleys for cruise passengers, as did Fraga’s Sloppy Joe’s.
Cruise Critic's senior editor Chris Gray Faust told Travel + Leisure that Key West had originally planned to remain closed to tourists until October 20 — but the port was deemed safe to open much earlier than anticipated.
“As of now, Royal Caribbean remains the only line to have announced a return to Key West,” Faust added, “but as the city continues to rebuild, we expect lines will begin to add Key West back on itineraries.”
Many areas in the Keys are still struggling in the aftermath of the massive hurricane. Cudjoe Key, which was battered by 130 mile per hour winds, USA Today reported, still has a curfew, and residents are being encouraged to boil water.
A majority of hotels in the region won't open until early October, and while the roads have been repaired, travelers may encounter scarce supplies and visible damage.