Cruise conference to address concerns in Charleston and abroad
VENICE, Italy — More than two dozen residents gathered in a bar on the east side of this city earlier this month to plot the course of their year-old effort to fight the ever larger cruise ships arriving here.
In a corner, a slide projector flashed images of many of them sailing small boats, waving “No Grandi Navi (No Big Ships)” flags.
The talk centered on strategies to push back at cruise ships when the mega-ships return in bulk in a few months.
Some specific concerns include the ships clogging the city’s canals, polluting the lagoon’s delicate marine environment and harming the foundations of the city’s historic architecture.
The debate over these ships, which can dwarf this medieval city’s skyline, heated up further after the Costa Concordia cruise liner ran aground off the Italian island of Giglio last year.
Clearly, concern over cruise ships isn’t limited to Charleston.
But Charleston soon will take center stage in the international debate over how best to balance cruise tourism and preservation concerns in the historic port cities where the ships often call.
On Feb. 6-8, the Francis Marion Hotel will be the scene of an international conference hosted by the World Monuments Fund, the Preservation Society of Charleston and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The event isn’t designed simply to bash the cruise ship industry, said Erica Avrami, research and education director with the World Monuments Fund.
In fact, Craig Milan, a Miami-based consultant to the cruise travel industry, will give the keynote address the first night.
“We recognize that tourism is a major generator of revenue in the world,” she said. “It’s an important partner to heritage preservation — the two really do go hand in hand.”
But she said the tourism must be sustainable, too.
“We just realized there hadn’t been enough focus on cruise tourism in historic places,” she said, explaining the purpose of the “Harboring Tourism” conference. “What I’m hearing is that there are places all around the world that are grappling with similar issues.”
Finding a balance
Charleston isn’t necessarily the city with the greatest cruise ship problem.
Evan Thompson, director of the Preservation Society of Charleston, said Venice is a better example of the potential harm from cruise ships, and Venetian architect Paolo Motta is set to deliver the event’s main lecture on Feb. 7.
Other cities have had their own issues, such as Mobile, Ala., which invested more than $20 million in the Alabama Cruise Terminal only to see its main cruise line pull out, posing a financial headache in covering the debt.
Alaska, Mexico and Costa Rica have their own challenges and are scheduled to send speakers to the event.
“Venice is indeed a sort of poster child for the heritage community because Venice is so iconic from a heritage perspective,” Avrami said, “but this is something that historic ports around the world have been grappling with.”
“We suddenly realized there really hasn’t been a lot of concentrated dialogue on best practices when it comes to historic ports,” she said.
Anthony C. Wood, a New York-based preservation educator, historian and activist, has visited Charleston regularly for more than a decade.
He recalled waking up one morning in his room at the Francis Marion Hotel.
“I remember the next morning going to the window, and had this sudden shock,” he said. “I thought, ‘Who let them build that high rise since I last came to Charleston?’ Then I realized, that wasn’t a high rise. It was a cruise ship. The impact was something you couldn’t ignore. It’s a very serious issue.”
Charleston might not have the world’s greatest problems with cruise ships — the number calling here in a year is still well below what even opponents concede is a reasonable limit — but it is the first historic city to be added to the World Monuments Fund “Watch List” specifically because of the threat of cruise ships.
Ahead of the game
The cruise debate has raged here for a few years and has triggered multiple lawsuits, two of which are still pending. Dozens of homeowners in the historic district fly banners with a slash mark over a cruise ship’s smokestack.
A coalition of residents and environmental and preservation groups are pushing the city and port to enact a legally enforceable cap to ensure that no more than an average of two cruise ships call here in a week and that no ships arrive with more than 3,500 passengers.
They also want cruise ships to plug into the city’s electrical grid at port instead of burning their own fuel to limit air pollution, and they want the city to collect a fee to offset its cost of managing cruise visits, among other things.
Avrami said the conference will capture the discussions and publish them online, but it has another goal.
“In the long term, we’re hoping that having this symposium in Charleston will help to foster better dialogue and help bring more knowledge to the table so negotiated solutions can be found to the existing situation in Charleston, which I know is rather tense,” she said.
Wood, who plans to participate in the conference, said Charleston has built an incredible tourism brand — it has earned the No. 1 spot in the world in Conde Nast’s most recent visitors’ poll — but there’s no guarantee it will remain on top.
“You don’t want people saying things bout Charleston that they’re now saying about Key West because of the impact of cruise ships. Or Venice,” he said. “You want to get ahead of the game on this.”
But the prospects for a breakthrough here are uncertain. While the conference has sought a range of perspectives, neither State Ports Authority officials nor Charleston Mayor Joe Riley — the ships’ greatest defenders — are set to participate. Many local opponents are.
“Everyone hopes Charleston will get it right,” Wood said. “Hopefully, this conference will ultimately provide information that will let Charleston get it right.”
The list of those speaking at the cruise ship conference currently includes the following:
- Carrie Agnew, Charleston Communities for Cruise Control
- Gustavo Araoz, International Council of Monuments and Sites
- Michelle Baldwin, Mayport Community Development Corp., Florida
- Dana Beach, Coastal Conservation League, Charleston
- Amos Bien, Global Sustainable Tourism Council, Costa Rica
- William Cook, National Trust for Historic Preservation, Washington, D.C.
- Joseph Geldhof, Law Office of Joseph W. Geldhof, Alaska
- Tony Hiss, author of “The Experience of Place,” New York
- Blan Holman, Southern Environmental Law Center, Charleston
- Martha Honey, Center for Responsible Tourism, Washington, D.C.
- Mobile, Ala., Mayor Sam Jones
- Kristian Jørgensen, Fjord Norway
- Paulina Kaplan, municipality of Valparaiso, Chile
- Marcie Keever, Friends of the Earth, Berkeley, Calif.
- Ross Klein, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John’s, Canada
- Craig Milan, Cruise Tourism Specialist and Travel Industry Consultant, Florida
- Harry Miley Jr., Miley and Associates, Columbia
- Paolo Motta, architect, Italy
- Randy Pelzer, Charlestowne Neighborhood Association
- Brian Scarfe, University of Victoria, Canada
- Jamie Sweeting, advisor to Royal Caribbean
- Evan Thompson, Preservation Society of Charleston
- Jonathan Tourtellot, National Geographic
- Dora Uribe, lawyer, Cozumel, Mexico
- Anthony Wood, Ittleson Foundation and National Trust for Historic Preservation
If you go:
What: Harboring Tourism: A Symposium on Cruise Ships in Historic Port Communities.
When: Feb. 6-8.
Where: Francis Marion Hotel, King and Calhoun streets.
Hosts: Preservation Society of Charleston, World Monuments Fund and National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Cost: $300 for students and society or trust members; $350 for non-members for the full conference; $25/$30 for only Wednesday’s session; $75/$100 for only Friday’s.
more info: Visit PreservationSociety.org or call 722-4630.