Cruise ships are bringing more people and money to Charleston than ever before, prompting the industry to look for ways to grow in a market constrained by a voluntary limit on the number of vessels that can call on the Holy City each year.
With the State Ports Authority putting an annual cap on cruise ship visits at 104, Carnival Cruise Line decided the answer was to go bigger.
Carnival, which has based one of its Fantasy class ships — the line's oldest and smallest — at the Port of Charleston since 2010, said last week it will bring its Carnival Sunshine to Union Pier for year-round cruises beginning in 2019. The Sunshine can carry 3,002 passengers — almost 1,000 more than the Carnival Ecstasy it will replace.
Terry Thornton, senior vice president at Carnival, calls the bigger ship "a natural evolution for the Charleston market."
"Charleston has tremendous tourism appeal," Thornton said. "The history and the restaurants and the culture — all of the things that are happening in Charleston fit very well with what we do from a cruising standpoint."
Other lines are looking to capitalize on Charleston's appeal.
Royal Caribbean, for example, will bring its nearly 2,500-passenger Grandeur of the Seas to Union Pier eight times in 2018 — up from six this year. That's in addition to two visits from the 2,800-passenger Mein Schiff 6, operated by Germany's TUI Cruises in a joint venture with Miami-based Royal Caribbean.
Charleston is a perfect fit for Royal Caribbean's family destination offerings, according to CEO Richard Fain.
"The focus has decidedly shifted to people looking for experiences, in particular experiences for the whole family," Fain said during a Nov. 7 conference call with investors. "This shift in the way people vacation plays beautifully to our sweet spot."
Charleston's cruise industry has grown exponentially over the past decade.
A 2009 study by College of Charleston professors John Crotts and Frank Hefner pegged the industry's annual economic impact at about $37 million. By 2016, its financial muscle had swelled to $131 million, according to the Cruise Lines International Association, with that money going toward employment of local workers, passenger spending in shops and restaurants and overnight hotel stays both before and after a cruise.
"It's a strong economic engine for the state of South Carolina," Thornton said.
The number of passengers on Charleston cruise ships grew 18.5 percent between fiscal years 2015 and 2017 — to 224,105 — with the current fiscal year showing an additional 19 percent gain to date.
Changing attitudes are helping to drive the boom, Fain said. Once considered a cheap vacation choice for the newly wed and nearly dead — or over fed — cruise ships have added amenities ranging from upscale restaurants to water parks to appeal to a larger audience.
"Cruising has now firmly established itself as a relevant and a desirable vacation option for consumers generally," Fain told investors. "This is especially true as we look at the younger generation, who have embraced cruising as never before."
A Harris Poll this year shows the number of people who consider cruising to be a good or perfect fit for them jumped from 17 percent in 2011 to 31 percent in 2017. Among millennials, the increase was even larger — 16 percent in 2011 to 40 percent in 2017.
Vacationers also want to board a ship that's within an easy driving distance of their home, according to the Cruise Lines International Association. That puts Charleston within range of major metros in North Carolina, Virginia and Georgia as well as all of the Palmetto State — a potential market of more than 33 million people.
"Cruisers like the convenience and cost of driving to a cruise port," the association said in its 2017 "State of the Industry" report.
Even so, the local cruise industry is small compared to its counterpart in Florida, which brings in $7.9 billion a year. Charleston, with a share of less than 1 percent of the nation's annual cruise spending, would seem to have plenty of room for growth.
But Jim Newsome, CEO of the State Ports Authority, says he's happy with the status quo.
"It's an important niche business for us, but it's never going to be a big business," said Newsome, who came up with the voluntary 104-ship limit in 2010 to help address concerns about the industry's potential impact on quality of life.
Cruise ships contribute about $8 million toward the authority's annual operating cash flow of roughly $73 million. That number could be higher — the authority turned down 15 cruise ships this year to stay within its voluntary limit.
"Ports are typically not in the business of turning down revenue and operating income, but I think it's more important for the port to keep the commitments that it's made," Newsome said.
The 2018 calendar currently calls for 102 cruise ship visits at Union Pier, with 71 of them by the Ecstasy, in its last full year as Charleston's home ship. Fifteen other lines will bring 20 more pleasure ships to the area — some more than once — with sizes ranging from the 202-passenger Victory I from Victory Cruise Lines to the 3,078-passenger Ventura from P&O Cruises.
All of the vessels have plenty of room to spare before they would hit the SPA's other self-imposed limit of no cruise ship larger than 3,500 passengers.
Newsome said he expects 2018 will wind up with 104 cruise ship visits, with the 2019 calendar nearly sold out.
Opponents of cruise ships docking near Charleston's Historic District say any number is too large. They want the ships to relocate to a terminal farther north, citing traffic, pollution and noise as reasons the ships shouldn't be allowed to drop passengers off near historic neighborhoods.
If the ships are going to remain where they are, opponents say, the limits need to be adopted as a local law rather than left to the authority's voluntary compliance.
"If left unchecked, the cruise industry in Charleston will continue to expand, and real standards are needed to protect public health and preserve Charleston historic integrity," said Alan Hancock, communications director for the Coastal Conservation League.
Newsome says those concerns aren't valid, because Charleston's cruise industry isn't going to get any bigger than the current constraints allow.
"We're satisfied living with that limit," he said. "We made a commitment and we plan to live by that commitment."