Are you willing to risk Charleston’s new No. 1 ranking as America’s top
Then let’s start asking serious questions about cruise ship tourism:
Who benefits? What are the real costs?
Tom Robinson, in his excellent Charleston Mercury series, “The
Elusive Economic Impact of Cruise Business,” asks another, “There is an economic
impact from cruise ship tourism. No argument there. And it’s big. The question
that must be asked, however: For whom is the impact?” Robinson lays out the
cruise passenger spending data from Greater Victoria Harbor, the Caribbean and
Key West. He reveals that in Key West, each cruise passenger spends an average
of just $32.10. “The largest expenditures were for clothing ($6.07), souvenirs
($5.90), and jewelry, china, perfume ($4.00).”(1)
Is that the heady cruiser spending you imagined?
And who can blame embarking cruise passengers for spending so little?
They pre-paid for their cruise, pre-paid for their food, some pre-paid for their
excursions. Any additional dollars a passenger might spend for food here must
be seen as wasteful when the food is “free” on the ship. Importantly, home-ported
Carnival “Fantasy” passengers are preparing to sail away from Charleston to
spend their money elsewhere! Only their cars stay for a week here in Charleston
in what must be the most expensive waterfront parking spaces in America.
Another writer makes this point. Different cruise lines attract different
kinds of passengers. “Seabourn or Lindblad focus on sensible sustainable
tourism, educational experiences, and market to those interested in ecology,
history etc. Other lines target different segments–stressing partying
(Carnival), or family experiences (Disney), shore experiences (Lindblad), or
elegance (Celebrity, Holland America)…”(2)
Robinson observes, “Tourism equals economic impact. Cruise tourism equals
less economic impact. Day-trippers equal way less economic impact. Economic
impact means dollars change hands. Into whose pocket do those dollars go? Those
of local retailers, innkeepers, service personnel, municipalities and taxpayers?
Or merely the left pocket and the right pocket of a sophisticated, horizontally
and vertically integrated cruise business?”
Where is the money going? It isn’t going to Charleston. The city gets no
property taxes; that land belongs to the SPA. The city gets no passenger fees,
fees that many other cities do get. And because of food safety concerns and
strict cost controls in the cruise industry, local farmers aren’t getting an
opportunity to provision these ships. The big money goes to the SPA (docking,
passenger and parking fees, etc.) and Carnival Cruise Lines (passenger fees,
income from restaurants, spas, casinos, shops, upper tier restaurants, etc.,
plus any negotiated cuts on land excursions, with preferred vendors, etc.).
Money also goes to North Charleston hotels (lower priced hotels host many
embarking passengers), transportation services such as taxis, pedicabs and
carriage operators, and the longshoremen.
So, what does Charleston get? The expenses and impacts.
“When tourists come here and take a carriage ride, the horses don’t take
them to Citadel Mall. They take them through the historic district where people
spend a lot of money to keep up those houses that others want to see,” says
Bryan Harrison in the Charleston News Alternative.(3) That statement is
confirmed by the 2011, Office of Tourism Analysis, College of Charleston survey
that says besides “food,” the following round out the top five tourist draws of
our city: “History, Ambiance and Atmosphere, Attractions and Local
Hospitality.”(4) And while most of the “attractions” of our city are “free” for
tourists, they are not “free” for the shopkeepers, residents, or religious,
civic and fraternal organizations that must spend boatloads of money to maintain
the historic buildings, homes, and gardens. And that “cost” isn’t just
financial, the same people and organizations, many of which also must pay
increasing property taxes, must also face the ever-growing negative impacts of
cruise ship visits including unhealthy smoke and soot pollution, increased
pedestrian and traffic congestion, noise, litter and simple wear and tear–all
add up to a diminished quality of life. Residents must also pay additional
taxes for first responders, civil servants and other city workers needed to
manage this tourism; no, those Charleston cops directing cruise traffic ain’t
workin’ for nothin’.
Robinson gives us a sobering cost/benefits comparison from Victoria,
Canada. “Although economic benefits are generated by cruise line, passenger and
crew member expenditures, social and environmental costs result from marine
effluents, traffic congestion, traffic noise, road repairs, atmospheric
emissions and public subsidies. Estimated economic benefits amount to at most
$24 million (Canadian dollars), while estimated costs are at least $28
Perhaps that’s why Bryan Harrison asks, “Should not the cruise industry be
regulated like the city regulates taxis, the carriage industry, tour buses,
pedicabs and other services that deal with tourism? Should we think about what
would happen if the number of carriage tours or pedicabs were unlimited? Or if
the waste from the animals that pull the carriages should be allowed without
So what about regulation? Nope, can’t have that, says Mayor Riley: “The
port has done a splendid job. We can’t tell them what to do.”(6)
Another question. Why does the cruise terminal have to be downtown? Many soot, noise,
traffic and congestion impacts on the peninsula would be reduced if the terminal
were moved to Columbus Street, North Charleston or Patriot’s Point. But the
mayor and the SPA won’t discuss that either.
Tuesday’s Post and Courier pondered if it was Charleston’s
“friendliness” that just won it the top travel destination award, or “was it the
bounty of outstanding restaurants, top-notch hotels, rich history, quaint shops
and overall ambience that catapulted the Holy City to the top, displacing
perennial winner San Francisco, which held the title for 18 years?”(7) What we
do know is that none of these attributes is all that important for “Fantasy”
passengers sailing off to the Caribbean.Tom Robinson concludes his Mercury
article, “Quality of life for residents in Ansonborough and commuters snarled
in cruise day traffic is an important issue, especially when compared to the
quality of life for a transient day-tourist spending four hours and $44 here.
But this story is about cruise economics. Does quality have a place when
money is a stake?
“Jonathan Tourtellot, founder of National Geographic’s Center for
Sustainable Destinations, believes the real benefit to tourists in the Holy City
is Charleston’s ‘sense of place’… its character, architecture and the deportment
of the historic district. He says, ‘The heavy human footprint of day tourists
can ruin the experience for stay-over visitors.
‘”Tourtellot is empathetic to what city fathers want. ‘I understand Joe Riley’s
impulse to want to fix up an ugly part of the city,’ he admits. ‘But if I were king
of the world, I’d put the home port facility up at Columbus Street, and shuttle people
who really want to visit Charleston into the historic district.'”
3) America’s Friendliest City? Who says?
4) Charleston Chamber – economic profile
5) Cruise Ship Controversy: An Unnecessary War
6) Forum Boiled down to Two Candidates – Charleston News Alternative