As the city of Charleston moves to slow the growth of tourism, at least for a while, the question many people are asking is whether the proverbial carriage horse has already left the barn. They're hoping that they are wrong and that it isn't too late to repair damage already done to residents' quality of life.
The new Tourism Advisory Council can use the pause to get a better idea of how tourism is impacting the historic district and how the city's 1994 Tourism Management Plan (revised in 1998) can be updated to help restore a balance between quality of life and a vibrant tourist industry.
So far the city's actions are worthwhile if not dramatic. For one thing, it plans to enforce existing laws by hiring three tourism enforcement officers. The Charlestowne Neighborhood Association, in its report to the committee, proposed the city hire four full-time and four part-time officers to enforce tourist ordinances related to carriages, walking tours, pedicabs and bicycles rented to tourists.
Another concern for the officers to address is that of downtown residents illegally using their homes as vacation rentals, thus eroding the city's residential atmosphere. Tim Keane, director of planning, preservation and sustainability for the city, promised to work on this issue "quite aggressively."
Further, Charleston officials for the time being will deny requests for new tour guides, buses or carriages and will say "no" to new special events, which have proliferated - from the longstanding house tours to the more recent Food + Wine Festival, with dozens of parades, runs, walks and film shoots in between.
These events, which take place in residential neighborhoods, involve street closures, traffic congestion, parking problems, crowds and noise - beyond what is normally encountered.
Even reining in their expansion, the number of existing events is burdensome to downtown residents. Those events need to be culled.
Charleston City Council has acknowledged that the late-night bar scene is a problem by giving initial approval to an ordinance that would require new drinking establishments in the historic area to close at midnight. The present law puts closing time at 2 a.m.
As the Tourism Advisory Council proceeds with its work, which will likely stretch beyond 2014, it should study more dramatic changes to provide for resident-only parking districts and to reduce vehicular traffic downtown. Other issues of concern are cruise ships and the lack of public restrooms.
A survey done by the Office of Tourism Analysis of the College of Charleston School of Business reveals that Charleston residents appreciate tourism's economic, social and cultural benefits. That is important, according to the analysis, because the public's friendliness is key to visitors enjoying their stays here.
Residents don't want to kill tourism, only to see it managed with their well-being in mind.
If that doesn't happen, the area's warm welcome could cool, and tourism could suffer right along with residents.
It's a good idea to put a brake on tourism while a better plan is devised. And city staff should be instructed to look for additional ways to mitigate the ill effects of the tourism boom.
Accommodating tourists can improve the quality of life for residents - fine restaurants, business vitality and energy. But tourism can diminish Charleston's alluring charm, its quiet residential neighborhoods and its authenticity for residents and tourists alike.
Tourism needs careful managing, and that can only be achieved by continual oversight.
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