Tourism is one of the most dynamic industries in Charleston.
If you go
what: Tourism Management Forum, a chance for citizens to learn how the city of Charleston manages tourism and to provide feedback about improvements.
When: 6 p.m. Monday
Where: Charleston County School District Building, 75 Calhoun St., first-floor board room.
More infoRMATION: Call 723-3746 or email email@example.com
In the past 20 years, the Holy City has opened an aquarium, developed an international cruise ship industry, beefed up airline service, and garnered its share of top-rated hotels and restaurants.
But nearly as much time has passed since Charleston updated its strategy for regulating the rapidly expanding hospitality industry. The last revision was in 1998.
So in perhaps a long-overdue game of catch-up, the city has assembled a task force of 24 tourism professionals, historic preservation advocates and neighborhood representatives to hash out and pinpoint areas of improvement in the official Tourism Management Plan.
"Obviously, Charleston has gotten quite a few accolades in the past few years, so it just felt like the right time to critique how we do things," city planner Tim Keane said.
The advisory committee will meet regularly to discuss tourism-related issues with the goal of proposing an updated plan to Charleston City Council at the end of the year. The group will hold a public forum Monday to gather feedback from the community about what those issues may be.
"The most important aspect right now before we really get down to serious work is, we want to ask residents what they think and what they would like to be addressed," said Katharine Robinson, chairwoman of the advisory committee and CEO of the Historic Charleston Foundation.
Among the obvious hot-button issues is the impact of the cruise ship business on the Historic District. Another that hasn't received nearly as much attention is the skyrocketing number of special events held in the city. Other issues include the redevelopment of the Gaillard Center and the availability of public bathrooms.
The city's tourism plan has long been influenced by residential groups and historic preservation advocates, which is why the task force is represented by both interest groups.
"There's a delicate balance that exists here in Charleston," Robinson said.
While tourism is viewed as largely a positive and important force for Charleston - it represented 16 percent of the local economy in 2012 - the economic interests are kept in check to a degree by other powers that be: history and community.
For instance, downtown Charleston neighborhood groups aren't shy about raising their concerns about noise or crowded streets. Preservation advocates, meanwhile, have taken tough stands against oversaturation of hotels and cruise ships.
It's a fine line that city officials and downtown residents have tried to navigate since the first carriage tours clopped through the cobblestone streets.
"The city of Charleston was really the first city in America to do this kind of work, managing all aspects of the way tourism affects life downtown and how the tourism industry operates on the peninsula," said Keane, the city's top planning official. "We have incredibly high expectations for the city that this does not become a place that is too heavily dependent on and representative of the tourism economy, that this is first and foremost a place to live and work and raise a family. And we feel so strongly about that that it requires a vigilance about management of these things so it doesn't get out of control."
Angela Drake, a member of the advisory committee and president of the Ansonborough Neighborhood Association, said her neighborhood is encased by tourism-related issues. She plans to address those this year during the committee meetings.
"Ansonborough is unique because we are surrounded by tourism on each side," Drake said. "We have the cruise ships and all that traffic it creates, there's the construction noise with the Gaillard, and the new hotel, The Grand Bohemian. . To retain the sense of a neighborhood, we've been pretty adamant about voicing our concerns."
The original tourism plan, adopted in 1978, allowed the city to regulate tour guides and carriage tour businesses. It was revisited 20 years later to address transportation issues, such as how many tour buses could be on historic streets at once.
But tourism in the city now goes beyond tour guides and horse-drawn carriages, said Steve Gates, an advisory committee member and president of Charlestowne Neighborhood Association.
"In 1998, there were no pedicabs or cruise ships, or proliferation of events, races or parades," Gates said. "Nor was there a high incidence of TV filming and movie activity. The whole landscape for analyzing the tourism carrying capacity has changed."
Cruise ships have been at the center of heated debates between the city and residential groups since Carnival homeported its 2,300-passenger Fantasy ship in Charleston in 2010. But Robinson of Historic Charleston said the committee's discussions won't be dominated by that or any other single issue.
"I think we will be dealing with the bigger picture, and I think cruise ships will be a part of that discussion, there's no doubt," she said.
Keane said another discussion likely will be the rapid growth of special events in the city. Last year, Charleston played host to 414 events, up an eye-opening 63 percent from 2011, according to the College of Charleston Office of Tourism Analysis.
While special events such as the Southeastern Wildlife Expo and this weekend's Cooper River Bridge Run are a boon for tourism businesses, the tens of thousands of visitors that can descend on the peninsula can cause traffic congestion and other problems.
"We just have to work together on managing these special events so that they don't overwhelm the city," Keane said.
Helen Hill, executive director of the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau and a member of the advisory committee, said it could become a problem.
"If we don't monitor what we do with the special events, it will hurt the visitor experience as well as the residential community," Hill said. "What we want to do is set up a process to look at what the event does for the community. Right now, there's not a process to evaluate a potential special event in the larger scope."
Other issues that may arise in the discussions likely will be related to transportation and parking, and the lack of public restrooms for visitors in downtown Charleston, according to several committee members.
Mayor Joe Riley, who appointed the task force, said he's encouraging the public to participate in Monday's meeting and others to help reshape the plan.
"Maintaining the delicate balance between Charleston's quality of life and the tourism economy is essential and a key objective of this planning process," Riley said.
Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail
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