Quote: “The problem with cruises is that they can be the strip mine of tourism.”(1) –Jonathan B. Tourtellot, a National Geographic fellow and founding director of the Center for Sustainable Destinations.
Charleston will soon make a decision that will impact its future for the next 100 years. This decision will propel Charleston into one of the great cities of the world, or, very likely, mark the beginning of its slow decline. Most do not understand the dangers, and that’s understandable. The forces for the status quo are in powerful positions and have unlimited financial resources. Those opposed, non-profits, associations, and individuals have neither. But those who want to protect and wisely develop Charleston have the issues on our side. Take a moment to read some of them–the 7 Reasons why the SPA’s proposed cruise terminal must not be built at Union Pier.
1) Congestion, confusion, pollution. The noise, soot, and air pollution from toxic bunker fuel are all documented health risks; cruise ships spew four times the emissions of cargo ships.(2,3) Then there’s the vehicle and passenger congestion and diminished property values near the terminal. This is just a sampling of “deposits” to Charleston from the “Fantasy,” Carnival’s home-ported cruise ship, and port-of-call ships. But the State Ports Authority (SPA) can’t be bothered by serious health risks and has no intention of installing plug-in shore power to mitigate pollution; Carnival also remains unresponsive.(4, 4a) As cruise ships continue to increase in size,(5) these problems will get worse before they get better (if they ever do). Venice, sadly, has become cruise ship tourism tragedy.(1,6,7)
2) Asymmetrical impacts adverse to Charleston. Traffic and passenger congestion, street closures, using expensive police time…these detriments fall on Charleston residents and taxpayers as cruise ship passengers tumble onto the streets, ignore lights and cars, to buy their T-shirts and ice cream cones before being herded onto the “Fantasy,” where they spend their real money with Carnival.(8) The recent Miley Study shattered the illusion that home-port passengers spend a lot and bring millions into the local economy: “Fantasy” cruise passengers only spend $66 a day vs. $718 a day for traditional tourists.(9) That’s because each ship is a vertical monopoly–passengers pre-pay for room and board only to be enticed by extra-cost on-board amenities (drinks, gambling, spas, theme restaurants, excursions, etc.); budget passengers are left with too little money and no incentive to spend it here.(10) There’s more bad news: Charleston doesn’t get passenger tax revenue from Carnival or property tax revenue from the SPA! So with Charleston suffering the adverse impacts, who gets the dough? The SPA grabs the money from passenger and parking fees, and the $79-a-night hotels in N. Charleston bag most of the overnight stays (where passengers often get free weekly parking and a free shuttle to the terminal).
3) Where’s that SPA study of alternative cruise terminal sites? It’s a myth that most people cruising on Carnival “Fantasy” from Charleston want to visit Charleston. Most embarking passengers could do that anytime, and some have, as most live in surrounding states. Yet they’re forced to drive their cars downtown where they’re unleashed into a small, historic downtown area even as their goal is to sail away, have a few drinks, hit the casiinos and the Caribbean. Surely a cruise terminal location at the Columbus Street Terminal, Patriot’s Point, or in North Charleston would provide better access to highways, provide less expensive parking and more room for cruisers to load and unload, along with more room for busses, tour excursion vendors, provisioning trucks, etc. Before proceeding on an ill-conceived Union Pier cruise terminal site, the SPA must be forced to study and weigh air quality, noise pollution, water quality, and coastline impacts, as well as traffic and transportation requirements, construction impacts, in addition to the long-term effects of this proposed project on historic buildings, homes and gardens downtown, and Charleston’s quality-of-life. So where is that study?
Jonathan Tourtellot, quoted above, warns “Cruise ships can flood a city with people who are not necessarily interested in the place, and it becomes a turn-off to other tourists and locals. The most egregious case in the U.S. is Key West, but it’s a pattern we’ve seen repeated in Dubrovnik and Venice.”(1) The National Trust for Historic Preservation put Charleston on “Watch status”; the World Monuments Fund, the Preservation Society, and the Historic Charleston Foundation, to name a few, have issued similar warnings about unbridled cruise ship tourism–especially from a downtown terminal. But the SPA and the mayor have ignored all the warnings.
4) Why no cruise ship regulations? The Charleston tourist industry is heavily regulated, including the number, size, and impacts from taxis, pedicabs and carriages. Yet, somehow, Mayor Joseph Riley claims he has no power to regulate cruise ship tourism, adding, “Nor do I believe there is a need to.”(1). But then Riley promoted the passage of a toothless cruise ship ordinance through the City Council. The mayor, apparently, wants it both ways. And while the SPA says it will “voluntarily” limit cruise ships visits to 104 per year, two per week, and limit ships to 3500 passengers, it refuses to put any of that “voluntary pledge” in writing.(3) The SPA wants it both ways, too. The result: there are no cruise ship regulations, and there’s zero protection for Charleston. The mere fact that the dock at Union Pier is 1800′ long–enough to dock two 855′ “Fantasy”-sized ships simultaneously–would be a red flag to residents, but most weren’t shown the detailed plans for the terminal. That, plus the fact that modern cruise ships are getting bigger and bigger should provide a scary view into the future.(5) So…
5) Regulation alone isn’t enough. We’ve seen how easily regulations can be manipulated. The City Council should have passed a proposed regulation drafted by the Historic Charleston Foundation, but the mayor and council punted.(3) But even if regulations were passed, it’s hard envision the vast negotiating power of the fast-growing $30 billion-a-year, foreign-owned cruise industry. Carnival controls almost half of the cruise industry, and the power that an entity with that much money has cannot be overestimated; we need only to look at Congress to see the perverse influence money has on laws and regulations. Then there’s the horrific evidence of the irreversible damage that cruise ship terminals do to any city when they are located downtown. Irreversible damage is irreversible. That’s why the proposed cruise terminal must be located away from downtown as they are in Boston and other historic cities.
6) Charleston Tourism is exploding, even without cruise ships. The Charleston peninsula cannot grow; it is a fixed, fragile area; we can’t fill in more of the Ashley River. And they aren’t making 250-year-old houses anymore. It’s Historic Charleston that draws the traditional tourists. The glowing tourism magazine articles are a double-edged sword; tourists may think Charleston is like Disney World, but Disney World carefully regulates the number of guests it handles so all can have a good time. Charleston’s mayor won’t try. Yet reality is hitting home. After this year’s Bridge Run debacle, organizers were forced to cap participants at 40,000 for 2013.(11) But did you know that the Ft. Sumpter tour boats that normally carry 200,000 passengers a year took a record 328,000 tourists to Ft. Sumpter in 2011? And in the first quarter of this year, Ft. Sumpter tourism number is up another 11% over last year’s record!(12) The Preservation Society’s Executive Director, Evan R. Thompson, cautions that Charleston is “not unlike a rare pristine rainforest; only so many people can trample through without damaging it.” He added, “The fundamental issue is that we must sustain an environment in which people are willing to make enormous private investment in historic homes. That’s what tourists come to see,”(1) As the Charleston News Alternative’s Bryan Harrison once quipped, “When tourists come here and take a carriage ride, the horses don’t take them to the Citadel Mall.”(13) When will key officials realize what the Bridge Run organizers found out: The City simply can’t accommodate everyone? Charleston’s famed balance among business, tourism and residential quality-of-life is careening out-of-kilter.
7) Charleston must create a world-class development at Union Pier. Union Pier represents the most valuable waterfront property on the East Coast.(5) Mayor Riley extolled the virtues of a partial private development of Union Pier, “It will extend the street grid system into that area, with sidewalks and parks, and in time with new homes, offices, and shops.”(1) And that makes the very thought that the other half of Union Pier is to be wasted on a warehouse-like cruise ship terminal and nine acres of stagnant parking reprehensible, unconscionable, and financially irresponsible. Imagine the property and sales tax revenues, the construction jobs, and then the permanent jobs that would be created by the private, planned development of all of Union Pier! Now there’s an even bigger vision afoot(5)–first expressed by Thomas Bennett, West Fraser and, most recently, Evan Thompson: “Build a new, world-class performance and exhibition hall at Union Pier. A facility that costs over $100 million can and should be a highly visible and proud architectural achievement. A waterfront location would be spectacular. Rather than gut an outdated 1960s building lurking behind an Alexander Street parking garage, a new, four-sided structure can set the tone for the future of Union Pier and cement Charleston’s status as a 21st century cultural leader.”(14) We all know what the famed Sydney Opera House did for that city, lighting up the interest and imagination of millions around the world. Union Pier is a 65-acre waterfront parcel adjacent to downtown–there is no giant opportunity like this in any city anywhere else. Given the exploding growth of the Charleston area (17,000 new residents in just over one year)(15), the onslaught of tourism (even without cruise ships), and the need for more jobs and economic stability, how can we allow an arrogant, intransigent SPA and a reluctant, retiring mayor to squander the future of Charleston on a low-purpose ugly-warehouse-like cruise terminal with wasted acres of hideous asphalt parking lots when it can go somewhere else? We simply can’t. Carpe diem.