Nothing says welcome like the colorful displays, gobs of tourist information and staff at the Charleston Visitor Center on Meeting Street.

It is a place to cool off, do some shopping or catch the free trolley.

But some say the pay-for-parking system is an irritant.

Little things like that add up to form a visitor's impression and shape feelings about whether to return to a city, according to experts.

The issue was raised in a study commissioned by the Charleston Area Convention & Visitors Bureau that looks at ways to make the city more inviting to people visiting for the first time.

Among its recommendations, the report suggests more free parking for the Visitor Center. The first half-hour is free; afterward, it's $2 per hour or a maximum of $12 per day.

“Don't slap them with fees the second they pull into town,” it states.

Three years after the report was issued, the Visitor Center parking charges remain the same.

Some tourists on Thursday said they expected to pay for a place to leave their car. Others complained that it made them feel less than welcome.

Debbie Engimann and Marvin Duncan of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., looked forward to catching the free shuttle at the Visitor Center and seeing the sights on the peninsula. But they soured on the parking charges.

“Now we're going to get stuck paying. That's ridiculous,” Engimann said. “I'm tempted to take the car back to the hotel. It's so stupid to leave the car here.”

Marsha Mann of Indiana was surprised about the Visitor Center parking lot fees. “I thought they would welcome us with open arms,” she said.

Not everyone was upset, though. Honeymooners Rob and Caitlin Augustine of Louisburg, Tenn., decided to park at a nearby multi-level city garage where the rate is $1 for the first 30 minutes, $2 for the first hour and $1 per hour thereafter. The rate per day is $10.

“We're just trying to check out Charleston a little bit,” Rob Augustine said. “Unfortunately you expect to pay to park. I'm not surprised.”

Mayor Joe Riley said the parking rates for a world-class city like Charleston are very reasonable.

“This is a very good deal. In a lot of cities, parking rates are much higher,” he said.

Taxpayers would be asked to shoulder the cost if the fees for visitor parking were eliminated, he said.

City spokeswoman Barbara Vaughn said 30-minute free parking at the Visitor Center gives people time to pick up tourist information and decide whether to continue to explore the area by car or catch the free shuttle around town.

“If you offer more than 30 minutes there will never be any turnover, and it's a small lot,” Vaughn said.

The Convention & Visitors Bureau study also critiqued signs offering directions to tourists traveling from Charleston International Airport to downtown Charleston.

When a driver approaches Charleston on Interstate 26, signs point the way to Savannah, Meeting Street, Mount Pleasant and Georgetown. Nowhere, though, is there a sign giving directions to Charleston.

“Nearly every freeway sign easily tells people how to get to Savannah,” the report states.

That situation still exists, but improvements have been made, said Perrin Lawson, Convention & Visitors Bureau deputy director.

“On the interstate there are a lot more signs indicating downtown and the Visitor Center,” he said.

Making sign changes can be costly and time-consuming. Many of the roads downtown belong to the state Department of Transportation, which further complicates the situation, Vaughn said.

In comparison, maps are cheap, and there are plenty of them available for free at the Visitor Center.

Even so, the issue of where to park the car remains.

Dimitri and Olga Pogorelov of Charlotte said they paid $2 for a few hours of tourist center parking in Savannah.

“It is a visitor center. It would be nice to not have to pay,” Dimitri Pogorelov said.

Caroline Lind of Charleston left her car in the visitor center lot while shopping on King Street.

“I think that's what most people do,” she said.