The future isn’t what it used to be- a guest editorial by Jay Williams in Charleston Mercury: “The array of evidence presented during the past year allows for only one conclusion.”

The future isn’t what it used to be, Charleston Mercury, May 16, 2012, editorial. 

Mayor Joseph Riley and supporters of an unregulated cruise ship terminal at Union Pier advanced their key arguments during a hearing conducted last month by the federal Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management.

The “we-know-better” argument went like this: “I was born in Charleston, my family has worked on the docks for years … and you got here late.” Or, “This has been a maritime city for 300 years…” This argument would be terrific if the maritime traffic and the ships were remotely the same as 300 years ago. Or even 30 years ago. But ships today don’t look like the Spirit of South Carolina. And, cruise ships have nothing in common with cargo shipping except that both ships float.

Cruise ships have thousands of passengers who must be accommodated and managed; cargo ships don’t.

The modern cruise industry was born just 40 years ago when Carnival Cruise Lines was formed. Carnival’s promise to “give the passenger a fun-filled vacation at a price they can afford” revolutionized the industry. Unlike the “past,” today’s cruise ships are carefully constructed floating cities, carefully designed to capture passengers’ interest, attention and money — beginning with the lobby bar up to the top deck spa, with casinos, upscale restaurants, “shopping streets,” pools, waterslides, nightclubs, live shows, music and more beckoning from every deck in between.

 

Sure, there were passenger ships 100 years ago, but they were tiny compared to Carnival’s 100-ship fleet. The Titanic, the largest ship afloat in 1912, weighed 46,000 tons, had 9 decks, and was 882 feet long. Compare that to the Carnival Fantasy, home-ported in Charleston and one of Carnival’s smallest ships: 70,367 tons, 14 decks, 855 feet long. But the Fantasy is Carnival’s oldest ship. The newer Carnival Dream-class of ships is far larger: 130,000 tons, 1004 feet long with 3,646 passengers and crew of 1,367.

Somehow Mayor Riley had the temerity to say, “It is the same business, the same cruise activity, that is currently going on in Charleston.” It’s not “the same business.” The cruise industry grew eight percent in 2011 and will grow another six percent this year! The cruise industry is like nothing from the past — new ships are vastly larger in size and scale. As Boeing’s new 787 “Dreamliner” dwarfs the old 707, ever-larger cruise ships should only be expected here, especially with the widening of the Panama Canal.

Let’s turn this line of discussion on its head. Charleston could put the cruise terminal anywhere — almost 50 percent of the South Carolina State Ports Authority terminal space is unused or underused. So why would any historic city risk building a cruise terminal downtown after witnessing the environmental damage already done by cruise ship terminals near the hearts of Venice, Key West and other cities?

What about the “Jobs Argument?” No one actually said, “Jobs, not snobs,” but they came close. The reality is that there will be just as many jobs — likely more — if the terminal were moved north to Columbus Street or to the Veterans Terminal. And any economic benefits from cruise ships would be increased. Why? Because there the demands for regulations and controls would be reduced — the larger ships could come in without damaging historic Charleston or displacing other tourists. The “Jobs Argument” is specious.

There was the nonsensical “no-soot argument.” “I work with 85 percent of the cruise ships that come in here, and I park my white truck right next to them. It never gets soot on it.” Perhaps, sir, that’s because the top deck of the ship rises 130 feet above the water — and the Fantasy’s tail — where the soot belches out — rises still higher. Do cruise ship passengers get soot on them? No. But that soot — with heavy carcinogen-laden particles — drifts over Ansonborough. Park your white truck there.

There was the “it’s only a one-berth terminal” argument. That’s not true, either. The pier at Union Pier is 1,800 feet. You now know that the Fantasy is 855 feet long. You do the math. Apparently no one else can.

And, finally, consider the argument of “Five pilings are all we’re talking about.” Five pilings didn’t bring 200 people out during their dinner hour. The new ship terminal would be far bigger than the older one, facilitating an increasing, uncontrollable level of cruise ship traffic and tourism that, on top of traditional tourism, will overrun Charleston’s geographically limited space and resources to handle.

The proponents didn’t mention the recently released Miley & Associates study on Charleston cruise ship tourism. That study shatters the illusion that home-ported cruise ship tourism brings millions into the local economy: Fantasy cruise passengers spend just $66 a day vs. $718 a day for traditional tourists. Worse, the Fantasy is not provisioned locally, but from Florida, and most of the passengers who spend a night before boarding go to less expensive North Charleston motels that give them free weekly parking and a shuttle to their “Fun Ship.” Cruisers come to Charleston mostly to sail away and spend their money elsewhere.

The array of evidence presented during the past year allows for only one conclusion. Once a cruise ship terminal is built downtown at Union Pier, the result will be a historic, environmental, cultural and financial disaster for downtown and Historic Charleston. If you’re looking back at the past 300 years of maritime history, you won’t believe that. But if you’re looking ahead at the growth of the modern cruise-tourism industry, you will.

Jay Williams, Jr., a radio broadcast consultant, member of the Charlestowne Neighborhood Association, regularly blogs on Charleston’s proposed cruise ship terminal. His blogs may be found at CharlestonCruiseControl.org under “Jay’s Blog.”