For the first time in Charleston port history, a cruise ship will set sail once a week, every week, from the passenger terminal -- and sometimes more often than that.
The 2,056-passenger Carnival Fantasy will embark from the end of Market Street for five-, six- and seven-day voyages to the Bahamas and Key West, Fla., beginning in May. As many as 70 calls per year will more than double the current number of cruises and, by some estimates, inject millions of dollars in direct local economic impact with each of them.
Top port and political leaders excitedly shared the news Thursday from a Waterfront Park pier while curious tourists observed from the nearby oversize swings. Onlookers gazed into Charleston Harbor and over at the freshly painted cruise terminal being prepared for a major overhaul.
Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau, said Carnival Cruise Line's decision to make Charleston a home port "is like a down payment" on a growing industry.
"It is a wonderful day in South Carolina. It is a wonderful day in the Lowcountry," said Grooms, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. "It's like a fantasy has come true."
Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, took it one step further: "With that, I'm going to declare the recession over in Charleston, South Carolina."
A city-organized task force in 2004 found that a ship stopping in Charleston spends $1.7 million in supplies from local vendors and State Ports Authority fees, while a ship originating in Charleston spends $2.5 million.
Cruise ships historically account for less than 1 percent of port business and carry onboard only about 1 percent of Charleston's annual visitors. But it's an important 1 percent, as Charleston Mayor Joe Riley pointed out Thursday.
"People come here to take a cruise, and they haven't been to Charleston before, they say one thing: We're coming back," Riley said.
Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, said the new cruise program also presents an opportunity for local families to sail to tropical climes without driving to another state first.
Carnival's president and chief executive issued a statement for the occasion, saying Charleston's central position along the East Coast factored into the company's decision.
The Port of Charleston anticipates 33 total cruise calls this year, including four Carnival calls. The port received 49 ships last year and 44 in 2007.
Its only customer with a contract, Norwegian Cruise Lines, announced last year that its ship regularly calling on Charleston had been sold to a foreign company. The Norwegian Majesty made its final call this spring.
When John Hassell became the port's interim chief executive in January, he listed a revitalized cruise industry as a priority.
That meant dusting off a 13-year-old plan to revamp the passenger terminal and to transform the prime waterfront acreage surrounding it into a two-story system of shops, lodging and dining.
The 30-year-old passenger facility recently received a fresh coat of paint to cover the rust but remains dramatically outdated and fails to meet post-9/11 security regulations. The Carnival announcement came two days after port staff shared with board members that they had selected urban design firm Cooper, Robertson & Partners to revisit and redevelop the master plan.
Former shipping executive Jim Newsome officially took over as Hassell's permanent replacement Sept. 1. Given Tuesday's step toward a better terminal, he said Thursday, "This couldn't happen at a better time."
Let's get busy on that terminal, a column by The Post and Courier's Brian Hicks, published 9/18/09