Charleston was recently named Conde Nast Traveler’s Readers’ Choice Top
Destination in the World!(1)  After 2015, such an honor is unlikely.

Why do tourists love Charleston?  Ohio residents Gary and
Marilyn Steyskal, who’ve visited twice a year since the ’80’s, say, “It’s the
history, the restaurants, the historical churches, and we like to explore old
cemeteries.  We always find something we haven’t seen before.”(2)  Those reasons
match many surveys that proclaim Charleston’s charm, history, historic homes and
gardens, architecture, ambiance, culture, restaurants, and friendly people as
the draw for almost 5 million tourists annually.  Tourists don’t take those
horse-drawn carriages to the Citadel Mall–they head downtown into the historic
neighborhoods to wander through the quaint streets and charming neighborhoods,
relax in one of our restaurants and browse the downtown shops.  People want to
see historic Charleston; that’s why they come.

Sadly, a cherished history doesn’t portend a glorious
future.  Ask the people who once lived in Venice, Italy, Dubrovnik, Croatia or
Key West, Florida.  These are cities changed, damaged or in decline.  People
left as carelessness replaced civility and T-shirt vendors displaced charming
shops.  Much of the damage was caused by the rapid increase of cruise ship
visits so near the historic centers of these cities.  That’s why the National
Trust for Historic Preservation has put Charleston on special “Watch Status”
when it released its list of “Americas 11 Most Endangered Places in 2011.”(3)

The biggest myth of cruise ship tourism is that what you see
is what you’ll get.  As upsetting as it may be for those in Ansonborough and on
the East Side, proponents say it won’t get worse.  That’s “the fantasy.”  It’s
about to get a lot worse.

First, cruise ships carried 2 million passengers in the
l980’s; this year, they’ll carry 18 million!  Modern cruise tourism, increasing
by 7.2% annually, is the fastest growing segment of the leisure travel

“As a result of this growth…  “Second, cruise ships are getting bigger,
much bigger.”

Second, Cruise ships are getting bigger, much bigger.  The
“Fantasy,” the 22-year-old ship that’s home-ported in Charleston, is the oldest
ship and one of the smallest in Carnival’s fleet.  Rumor has it, it’s for
sale.(5)  When she’s gone, she won’t be replaced by another 70,000-ton ship with
2,060 passengers and a crew of 920.  For a glimpse at what’s sailing over the
horizon, check out the ship Carnival just ordered.  She’ll be the first of a
new, larger class–a 135,000-ton behemoth that will carry 4,000 passengers.(6)
Royal Caribbean already sails two, even larger ships, the “Allure of the Seas”
and the “Oasis of the Seas.”  Each carries 6,300 passengers and 2,400 crew.(7)
Each is also five times larger than the Titanic!

Third, these aren’t like ships of the past that were built to
take passengers from one port to the next.  When Carnival reinvented the cruise
industry in l972, each ship was designed to be the destination.  This brilliant
business model lures passengers with a low-priced deals, then encourages them to
spend and spend once on-board.  And there’s lots to spend on: upscale
restaurants, spa treatments, drinks at multiple bars and nightclubs, adult-only
serenity retreat, “meet and mingle” lounges, city-styled “shopping streets,”
casinos, plus “entertainment options all up and down the ship” as one Carnival
offering promotes.(8)  Why just take passengers from one port to another to
spend their money if they’ll spend money on the ship?(9)   That business plan is
working!  Royal Caribbean, the third largest cruise line, rolled out its public
offering just two weeks ago at $19 a share–those shares jumped 31% the first
day!  Carnival Corp., with 99 ships, is valued at $30 billion.(10)  Today’s
mega-ships compete for tourist dollars with land-based resorts totally unlike
yesterday’s ships that contributed to the ports they visited.(11)

Fourth, in spite of these facts and trends, the State Ports
Authority (SPA) unilaterally decided to wedge a giant new cruise terminal in at
Union Pier next to historic downtown.  The SPA never engaged Charleston’s
citizens in a discussion about alternative locations; in fact, it never
considered any other location even though regulations required such a study.(12)
It never researched other historic cities–those that haven’t been damaged by
cruise tourism–where their cruise terminals are farther removed from their
historic downtowns, neighborhoods and small streets.  So soon, unless fate or
common sense (both unlikely) or a lawsuit (only slightly less unlikely)
intervene, thousands more passengers, in concentrated throngs, will swarm
through the streets of Charleston’s historic districts with those crowds growing
by 7.2% year after year.

The SPA has also rejected every single idea to mitigate the
damage that a 100,000 sq. ft. cruise terminal, 9 acres of parking, traffic and
passenger congestion, the swarm and pollution of provisioning trucks, homeland
and border security, and increasingly large cruise ships will cause near
downtown.  The SPA refused to agree to binding limits on the size, number of
ships, or frequency of visits, and it’s refused to install shore power or demand
non-sulfer (toxic) diesel fuel be required while these ships idle for eight
hours a day in port.  It’s ignored every olive branch, every warning by doctors,
every concern raised about the damage cruise terminals have caused to other
historic cities.(14)  The only way to bring the SPA to the negotiating table is
to stop this “fast track” terminal approval…somehow.   If the brakes aren’t
applied, and this giant new cruise terminal is permitted for Union Pier, with an
existing 1800 foot pier that can accommodate these mega-ships, the impacts will
be devastating for Charleston’s historic districts including Ansonborough,
downtown, the French Quarter and South of Broad.  Once it’s built and the
dangers are finally realized, it’ll be too late.

Two things are certain. The SPA’s mantra ad nauseum about Charleston’s
“300 years of port history” is bunk.(15)  And so is the implied corollary that
Charleston’s fabled history can protect it from a future of unbridled,
unregulated tourism.  The continuous, explosive surge of cruise ship tourists is
unlike any threat from the past.  And given the immense resources and power of
the cruise industry, what local “regulations,” even if imposed, couldn’t be
weakened?  Charleston’s only defense is to get this proposed terminal moved
farther away…somehow.


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a)  “Harboring Tourism” Symposium details and registration

aa)  Story about Symposium on Cruise Ships in Historic Ports set for
Charleston – Miami Herald

1)  Charleston names top city in the world [sic] – ABC News 4

2)  Conde Nast declares Charleston top tourist city in the World – Post and

3)  Positive news for Charleston Lawsuit – National Trust for Historic

4)  Florida-Caribbean Cruise Assn. – PDF

5)  Cruise critic – reader thread

6)  Carnival Cruise Lines – Wikipedia

7)  On Earth – Can the cruise industry clean up its act?

8)  The Carnival “Dream” – Carnival website

9)  Cruise industry throttling up again…  – AOL Daily Finance

10)  Norwegian Cruise Line IPO soars 31% – USA Today

11)  International Review of Management – Dubrovnik.  (PDF Download)

12)  Groundhog Day – Jay Williams blog

13)  The SPA’s “Defiant”  – Jay Williams blog

14)  It’s all ao Unnecessary – Jay Williams blog

15)  The Future isn’t what it Used to Be – The Charleston Mercury