Charleston recently hosted an international symposium on cruise ship tourism in historic cities. Presenters from Washington, Canada, Costa Rica, Alaska, Norway, Chile, Mexico, Italy, New York and California showed handfuls of mega-ships vying for position in crowded harbors, and described difficulties preserving historic charm while hosting throngs of visitors by sea.
It was both enlightening and moving to learn of ports less effective than Charleston managing cruise tourism.
In comparison, our cruise market is far smaller than other ports that are truly struggling, but counting your blessings is often more prolific when you see what adversity looks like elsewhere.
The forum was at the Francis Marion Hotel, six blocks down Calhoun Street from Union Pier and Columbus Street Terminals. Both of these terminals border the historic district and offer a total of eight berths (parking spaces) for cargo and cruise ships. A number of attendees were neighbors of these terminals. If they purchased their homes seven or more years ago, they’d remember when Columbus Street was a thriving container terminal, and the first in the entire Southeast to handle the new class of mega container ships built for the expanding Panama Canal. Union Pier was then both an automobile terminal and a cruise terminal.
The State Ports Authority (SPA) has since moved containerships elsewhere, and then moved automobile ships from Union to Columbus. That resulted in 220 fewer ships tying up next to the historic Ansonborough neighborhood annually.
The SPA proposes next to downsize Union Pier from three berths to one. After seeking community input, it has decided to remove over 1,000 feet of pier and vacate 35 acres, leaving it for expansion of the downtown community. Remaining docks in downtown Charleston will soon offer only six berths for ships, including only one for a large cruise ship. Charleston, with a nearly 40 percent reduction in downtown shipping already, was the only port featured in the symposium to downsize downtown, though we learned Venice is considering the concept.
There was much discussion about cruise passengers overwhelming historic towns. Charleston, again out front, had the most moderately scaled cruise business. It was illustrative, though coincidental, that the Francis Marion’s annual accommodation (83,000 room-nights) is larger than the total accommodation of all cruise ships that docked in Charleston in 2012. No other port could compare their cruise business to just one historic marquee hotel.
Traffic congestion near terminals was also widely discussed. Charleston has the chance to solve that with our new terminal design.
Just five blocks away on Meeting and George, we gather 5,000 people to cheer for College of Charleston basketball, nearly twice the capacity of our cruise ships. We know we can handle surge traffic in that area, done right. So far this season, Cougars’ attendance is an impressive 56,000, 40 percent more than the total capacity of all the cruise ships that docked nearby since basketball season began.
Locals at the symposium were keenly attentive to environmental issues, as we all should be.
Many were unaware that their Ports Authority had dramatically reduced the number of ships coming to their neighborhood, and, thereby, the total emissions from those ships. The effectiveness of new cleaner fuels required in 2015 was presented, as well as ship exhaust scrubber technologies that can further reduce emissions to less than typical power plants.
Many thought the only answer was plugging ships into our power grid, which only reduces emissions when ships are tied to the dock, and shifts emissions to the power plants’ neighbors.
Historic preservation was also featured. Preserving history ought not just be preserving buildings, but also fostering history to live on.
Our downtown was once The Port, and removing the experience of shipping entirely from downtown would sever our historic roots. Our symposium guests may well be returning home to talk about our charming city that figured out how to keep cruise business part of our living history while limiting the impact to less than a college basketball game.
Some of the most interesting comments, though, weren’t about ports, but about passengers. One speaker referred to “those kind of people,” and others suggested cruisers don’t spend as much as other tourists. The symposium’s final recommendations omitted, thankfully, a minimum for a spender worthy of our fair city, but they did include one interesting suggestion. We were advised to decide if the moon on our flag is waning or waxing.
Gorgets don’t wane, nor does South Carolina’s moon. This symposium proved, once again, Charleston is both leading and lighting the way.
John Cameron, a former captain of the Port of Charleston, is executive director of the Charleston Branch Pilots Association.