Curbing the growth

Tourist check out what the vendors in The Market have for sale. Spring is a busy time in the Market Street area with tourist visiting by land and by cruise ships.

As if trying to tie a knot at the end of a fully expanded balloon, Charleston officials announced that, for the first time in recent history, the city is taking action to immediately and temporarily halt the growth of Charleston's thriving tourism industry.

Mayor Joe Riley and city planner Tim Keane spoke Thursday at the Tourism Advisory Council meeting to introduce efforts the city already has set in motion to address some of the most pressing visitor-related issues on the peninsula.

Riley told the council the city has become "increasingly concerned" about ensuring it balances the demands of a booming hospitality industry with the everyday needs of people who live and work in and around the historic district.

The announcement came less than two days after City Council gave initial approval to an ordinance that would stunt the growth of new late-night businesses in downtown Charleston.

Members of the Tourism Advisory Council, made up of tourism and downtown neighborhood representatives who were appointed by the mayor to examine and revise the city's Tourism Management Plan, seemed to think slowing down and taking a look at the future was a reasonable idea.

"I don't think it's going to halt tourism. I think it's a prudent move to step back and see what we can do smarter and better," said Rick Mosteller, an advisory council member and an owner of Gray Line Tours of Charleston. "I think the consensus is that we've all got to work together to refine the balance between a thriving tourism economy and a livable city that the residents can enjoy."

The advisory council's task to update the Tourism Management Plan for the first time since 1998 is a demanding one, and will likely take until the end of the year or longer to complete.

"We're not waiting until this report is finished," Riley said Thursday. "We're getting good information as we go along, and we're trying to take action on those when we can."

A major part of the city's plan is to hit the pause button and essentially stop the proliferation of new tourism-related businesses and events. The idea is to give the advisory council time to determine the peninsula's capacity to handle those kind of activities.

The region attracted about 4.8 million visitors in 2012, according to the latest study by the College of Charleston's Office of Tourism Analysis. With that number expected to keep rising, the city is looking at how the peninsula can accommodate the influx.

For the foreseeable future, the city will deny requests to host new special events, and they will not issue permits to new tour guides, buses or carriages, Keane said. And at least until City Council takes final action on the ordinance that would prevent growth of late-night bars, business licenses won't be issued to new applicants who want to operate past midnight in downtown Charleston.

Also, while the council considers new tourism laws, the city is ramping up enforcement to make sure the regulations already on the books are being obeyed.

Keane said they are in the process of hiring three tourism enforcement officers to patrol the areas of the peninsula that are heavily populated with visitors and tour guide businesses.

One thing that will be more carefully watched is the recent trend of downtown Charleston residents using their homes as vacation rentals for visitors, which is prohibited on the peninsula.

"This is an extremely important issue to us. There is no way we are going to allow vacation rentals to proliferate in residential neighborhoods," Keane said. "We will be continuing to work on this quite aggressively."

Leaders of the city and state tourism agencies agreed with the city's efforts to temporarily curb tourism growth.

"Charleston is a world class destination, and it's been very successful. I think city leaders are taking a snap shot of where they are now so that the next 20 years have the same success," said Duane Parrish, the director of the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism.

Helen Hill, executive director of the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau and member of the council, gave a presentation at the meeting Thursday about how her group markets to affluent and educated travelers.

"The reasons Charleston is a great place to visit is the same reason Charleston is a great place to live, and I think we really owe it to our future to enforce our regulations," she said as she pulled a toy goose and a golden egg out of her bag. "We have a reminder at our office that we keep on my desk and it's the goose, and the golden egg. Because the reality is we have to protect both."

Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail