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Cruise ships to return to Key West earlier than expected

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 9/22/2017 Gene Sloan
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Good news, cruisers: It looks like Irma-hit Key West, Fla. will be back on cruise ship schedules far sooner than expected. 

Royal Caribbean on Thursday said it had been cleared to return to the destination as early as this weekend — weeks earlier than it had been expecting just days ago. 

Royal Caribbean in recent days had canceled all of its Key West calls through the middle of October, citing the impact of Irma. But on Thursday it said many of the canceled calls would be put back on the schedule, starting with a Sunday visit by the 1,840-passenger Empress of the Seas. 

A massive clean-up effort has been underway in the Keys since Irma hit the archipelago on Sept. 9, and as of early Friday, it remained closed to visitors, according to the Keys tourism website. But late on Thursday, wording on the site that said Key West was aiming to be back open for tourists by Oct. 20 was removed and replaced with language suggesting some areas of the Keys were now ready for visitors. 

"Some regions of the Keys were impacted more than others and damage at Keys accommodations’ facilities varies from no impacts, except for landscaping, to severe damage because of storm surge," the Keys tourism site now says. "Assessments are still being executed, but it is believed that most tourism facilities will return to operations soon after the restoration of power, water and communications."

Layers of paint were stripped from the Southernmost Point marker in Key West, Fla. by Hurricane Irma. © Scott Clause, The Advertiser, via USA TODAY Network Layers of paint were stripped from the Southernmost Point marker in Key West, Fla. by Hurricane Irma. Key West was affected far less by Irma than parts of the Keys further to the east where the storm's eye made landfall. But officials have been hesitant to reopen it to tourists as the resulting influx of travelers on the Florida Keys Overseas Highway to Key West could hinder the recovery efforts in harder-hit areas. As cruise ship visitors don't arrive via the highway, they wouldn't have the same impact on recovery efforts.    

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 still 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 just 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.

Both St. Thomas and St. Maarten were devastated by the storm, which roared across the Caribbean two weeks ago. Some officials have 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 significantly affected by Irma include St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands; Barbuda; St. Barts; and Tortola in the British Virgin Islands.  

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