As a former resident of Key West and activist interested in protecting the environment and quality of life, I have been closely following the debate regarding cruise industry regulation in Charleston. I am writing to say “Please, Charleston! Learn from the mistakes made by others and protect your city. There is no going back once you move forward.”
On Oct. 1, voters in Key West, Fla., defeated a plan that would have led to vastly more cruise ship passengers. The margin of defeat was nearly three-to-one. Voters came from different points of view; some environmental, some fed up with endless overcrowding, but 74 percent agreed that the cruise ship industry has harmed the island’s quality of life.
Over the past half century, the cruise ship industry has matured into a global leviathan, transporting passengers to every exotic locale on the planet with a port to handle passengers.
But what happens to the places and the people themselves, who live in cruise ports? And beyond the question of people, what happens to the cultural fabric of a place when cruise ships disgorge hundreds of thousands, or millions of people, on a place?
Further growth fundamentally alters the balance of commerce in many of the world’s unique and special places. Trinket shops serving cruise ship customers have pushed out local businesses on every principal route in the city. Indifferent mass market retail outlets cast an ugly shadow on street scenes. New jobs created come at the expense of many others.
The numbers of visitors simply overwhelm the local culture that was the attraction in the first place. What survives in its place is a hybrid, manufactured experience that retains the outward appearance of the original culture, but is otherwise wholly re-fitted to serve a transient mass market.
The erosion of heritage caused by cruise ships is inescapable. Cities like Miami and Fort Lauderdale essentially become pass-through locations, bearing the weight of services with little benefit to the local tax base.
In Venice, the costs of maintaining an island economy, under stress from rising seas and commerce depending on boat transportation for every activity, are difficult enough. But the essential character of the place has been infected by a kind of lassitude.
The industry’s profit model is to “feed them like crazy, let them out for a walk in port to buy a T-shirt, but return them from port to spend more back on board.” Letting passengers out for air is what cruise ships do, people with only a passing knowledge of the places they visit, but for the culture they overwhelm, there is no relief.
The default rebuttal of the cruise ship industry and its assorted parts is that they are only providing what the market wants — supply and demand. But if simple economics harm the very underlying attractions of place, there ought to be government regulation.
Ocean liners in the early 20th century bore the imprimatur of romance and adventure. Is this dystopian vision of the modern version of the industry too harsh?
Can coastal communities otherwise cope with declining economies like fishing (too much demand, too little supply because pollution and failure to manage fisheries) or end-of-the-road, small scale economies that offer few opportunities for grown children?
What ought to determine outcomes, in the regulation of the cruise ship industry, is maintaining character of place and cultural fabric. These are the tangible, core features of coastal communities that have struggled, often for centuries, to maintain identity.
No one who lives in a port sought by cruise ships should fall for the argument that a rising economic tide will lift all ships.
It doesn’t happen. The industry’s belt needs tightening, and only local destinations are equipped to do it.
In Key West, for the time being, the voters just tightened the industry’s belt.
Charleston should heed Key West’s and Savannah’s examples.
Alan Farago, a former resident of Key West, lives in Coral Gables, Fla., and is president of Friends of the Everglades.
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