Those in Charleston who want the city to regulate the cruise industry here say they have been trying to get a constructive dialogue going for three years. But Carnival Cruise Lines doesn’t answer their letters. And neither the city nor the S.C. State Ports Authority appears interested in talking.
Still, the key message that emerged during an international conference here on “Harboring Tourism” was: Get a dialogue going. If all the “stakeholders” work together to determine what this community wants to be, and therefore what role it wants cruise tourism to play, the impasse can be overcome.
Horror stories about how unregulated cruise operations have damaged historic ports around the world were convincing evidence to attendees at the three-day conference concluding Friday that it is essential for Charleston and other historic ports to avoid falling victim to similar problems.
Evan Thompson, director of the Preservation Society of Charleston, which planned the conference in conjunction with the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the World Monuments Fund, said he hopes the conference will be the beginning of a new, constructive conversation about how to manage cruises in this, and other, historic ports.
The speakers, who came from as far as Norway, Canada, Alaska and Mexico, shared their experiences. Among them: The once pristine fjords of Norway are crowded with cruise ships and sometimes cloaked in the smog they cause; the ancient city of Venice is dealing with erosion, crowding and visual blight as a result of mammoth cruise ships calling there; and coral reefs near Cozumel, Mexico, are still healthy, but local people fear what might happen since the cruise business has tripled.
Several people shared encouraging stories of how a healthy conversation led to mutually agreeable solutions. Sadly, the question of how to strike a “delicate balance” between tourism — cruises in particular — and the quality of life in Charleston turned adversarial almost from the start.
Soon after a forum put on by the Historic Charleston Foundation three years ago, in which the city and the port both participated, the question was misrepresented as “jobs versus snobs.” Instead of acknowledging their efforts to find solutions to congestion, traffic, emissions, visual pollution and a possible erosion of property values, citizens were painted as anti-cruise ships (they aren’t) who don’t care about port jobs (they do).
While neither the city nor the State Ports Authority accepted the Preservation Society’s invitation to attend the conference, the hosts will make information available.
The “opposing” sides are not really so far apart on some concerns. The Ports Authority has said it will limit the number of cruise ship visits to 104 a year, and will limit the size of those ships that call here.
Those conditions are acceptable to the other side. They just want an ordinance making the limits binding the way restrictions on other tourist businesses are binding.
More divergent are their opinions about where the cruise terminal should be located and whether cruise ships should be required to use shoreside power instead of deisel fuel while docked to reduce harmful emissions. But there is no reason those topics can’t be on the table.
The SPA benefits financially from the cruise business, but international port studies have found that the financial benefit to communities is negligible at best, and that the strains that unfettered cruise ships put on ports in some cases negate any benefits altogether. One fear is that cruise passengers in too great numbers will drive away overnight tourists who are likely to spend four times as much while here. And it isn’t just peninsula Charleston that would suffer if tourism suffers. It is a prime economic driver throughout the Lowcountry.
If the community is unable to bring other stakeholders to the table, the conversation is likely to go largely to the courts.
Already, several lawsuits have been filed in relation to the SPA’s plans to build a new passenger terminal. The Historic Charleston Foundation, frustrated after attempts to work out solutions have fallen on deaf ears, this week threw up its hands and decided to join one of the suits.
Fortunately, people in Charleston are trying to address the issue of cruises before there is a crisis situation, and after learning about just how much damage they can bring, when not regulated.
It’s a good time for all involved to try to cooperate and come to some reasonable solutions.