Charleston Terrorized by Waterborne Menace/City Prospers with New Cruise Ship Port

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In May, my wife and I, along with two of our dear friends, made the five-hour journey to Charleston, S.C., rented a hotel room, bought gas, ate several meals and paid the local Ports Authority $15 a day to park my minivan while we boarded the Carnival Fantasy

Tourists sacking Charleston

Tourists causing irreparable damage to Charleston, S.C.

for a five-day cruise to the Bahamas.

The cruise itself wasn’t awfully expensive, because I won it for an article I submitted to a Creative Loafing contest last summer. I like to think, however, that we stayed in a room that would otherwise have been vacant, ate meals that would otherwise have gone unserved, and bought tickets for a downtown walking tour that would otherwise have consisted of only two other couples.

We were tourists, and we acted like it. Since we traveled with Joey Hutchins, we were frugal tourists, but tourists nonetheless. For a town like Charleston, tourism is important. It’s an economic engine, keeping the neat restaurants humming and providing the hospitality tax revenue that helps the city keep up its monuments and historic sites.

So imagine my surprise when I read that I was contributing to the city’s disintegration, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Now usually, the National Trust for Historic Preservation is alright by me, and their annual list of endangered places of historic interest does a lot to call attention to sites that, without action, will be lost to us forever. And unchecked tourism can lead to a lot of problems for historic sites. Even the most visited sites are susceptible to harm, owing to encroachment of commercial interests eager to cash-in on the flow of people eager to see the hills of Gettysburg or similar sites. I don’t doubt that, if they could, McDonald’s would be willing to operate a franchise from the east wing of Mount Vernon.

Still, I think it odd that the problem of a city so steeped in history that it becomes essential to its economy is that there are more people coming.

The city’s government doesn’t see this as a problem. Long-time Mayor Joe Riley railed against the National Trust, to such an extent that the city was placed on a special “watch” status rather than being added to the list proper. The 175,000 cruise ship passengers who come to town account for only about 4 percent of the city’s annual visitors, after all (though, granted, the do come in rather large spurts).

The Southern Environmental Law Center also has weighed in on the issue, filing suit in South Carolina state court this week against Carnival. The suit specifically calls attention to the snarled traffic that comes with embarkation as all the cruise passengers flow toward the ship, essentially creating gridlock on the city streets, and the ship’s docking at a port site in the city’s historic downtown. The center, however, is more than willing to work with the city to resolve these issues.

As for the National Trust, this is the first time a site has ever been added to a “watch list,” which the organization says signifies that issues threatening the site can still be mitigated before irreparable harm is done. Specifically, the National Trust has offered the following assistance:

  • Helping sponsor a Tourism Impact Study for Charleston. The study would provide a deeper understanding of the economic, social and cultural impacts that current tourism and the increased levels of cruise traffic will create on the historic peninsula of Charleston. The study should be commissioned by parties with an interest in the issue, including the City, preservation organizations and the state ports authority. The National Trust’s participation can provide assurance that the study responsibly reflects the concerns of all parties. In addition, the National Trust plans to support such a study with a grant to help defray costs.
  • Funding an Enforcement Authority Legal Review. The National Trust can bring its significant legal resources to better understand the issue of authority in setting enforceable limits on cruise tourism. Precedent from other coastal communities, role and scope of potential city ordinances and state regulation and oversight are all considerations in the complex process of setting cruise limits. Parties engaged in this issue will ultimately need to understand what legal basis exists for management of cruise tourism levels. The National Trust can play a useful role in helping clarify the options available.
  • Launching a Community Forum on Cruise Tourism. The National Trust plans to tap into its social networking and online presence to encourage continued discussion of the cruise tourism issue, both within the Charleston community and interested public audiences.

I’d be annoyed by the cruise ships if I lived or worked in downtown Charleston as well, but I’d be willing to temper that agitation if my livelihood relied on that big white boat and the sunblock-lathered tourists from out west who drive in to set sail. Tourism itself doesn’t seem to be the problem, but rather the loose “gentlemen’s agreement” the city has had with Carnival to operate from its port that limits the size of the ship Carnival can dock there and the frequency with which ships can embark annually.

That both the National Trust and the Southern Environmental Law Center are eager to work with the city to study and “mitigate” the harm that cruise ships cause to the city indicates that both organizations know that their case is tenuous. Though cruise ships pose their own unique environmental issues, the Port of Charleston continues to serve as a hub for industrial ship traffic as well, and that hasn’t bothered the National Trust.

I hope that these groups are able to resolve their issues with Carnival and Charleston before the city suffers an almost 5 percent drop in its annual tourism business.

Besides, Savannah has considered offering itself as a port for cruise ships, and I really enjoyed my cruise. Enough that I’d go on another.

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