October 4, 2013 in Breaking News

Lessons from Key West

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Throughout the debate over cruise ships in Charleston, those who want to limit the size and number of cruise ships here have warned of becoming “another Key West.”

It seems that even in the funky, easy-going, bohemian island city, residents want the industry limited.

On Tuesday, by a vote of 3-1 in a referendum, Key West said “no” to a dredging study, which could have led the way towards enabling larger cruise ships to visit.

For months, business owners have presented their case: Key West needs to increase its cruise business to help the local economy. They spent more than $150,000 spreading their message.

At the same time, a wide array of residents, who spent half as much, voiced concern about how dredging a mile-long, 150-foot-wide swath of living corals, sponges, sand, mud and rocks encrusted with marine life would be too high a price to pay.

Besides, they don’t like how the place has changed due to too many cruise ship visitors. Cruise ship critics blame their presence for spawning shops selling cheap trinkets and bars selling cheap drinks, not to mention strip clubs in the city of 25,000 people.

A large number of Key West residents say things have already gone too far. The city has not set limits on the industry, and because about 15 percent of its tax revenue comes from cruise ship taxes and fees, it may be unlikely to do so.

Charleston receives no revenue from cruise ships and yet refuses to set reasonable, enforceable limits on their size and number. Failing to keep the industry in check seems arbitrary. Why not prevent the kind of growth that could erode historic Charleston’s appeal for residents, businesses and tourists?

Certainly that’s the message from the National Trust for Historic Preservation which put the city of Charleston on its “watch list” because of cruise ship conflicts with the city’s historic district.

And while dredging is not at issue here, air emissions from cruise ships idling at dock are. Both the Charleston Medical Society and the South Carolina Medical Society have voiced their concerns about the potential impact on people’s health.

Key West and Venice (Italy) have had long experience with cruise ships. People in both places think it’s such an important issue that they have launched efforts to manage the growth of cruise ships so that they don’t destroy those cities’ unique charm and natural environment. Indeed No Grandi Navi (No Big Ships) in Venice and the Key West Committee for Responsible Tourism recently joined forces to share ideas and information. Where do we sign up?

The city of Charleston contends that it has no jurisdiction over the State Ports Authority site or the cruise business. Charleston Communities for Cruise Control disagrees. The city, after all, limits tourist carriages, pedicabs and even tour guides. A court will have to decide.

The city is in the enviable position of being able to take steps to manage growth now before more ships that are larger and carry more passengers do damage. It should be looking for ways to do so, not to avoid the responsibility.

Click here to view this editorial in Charleston’s Post and Courier Newspaper

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