Those occasional visits by the Carnival Sunshine over the past two years weren't simply designed to give cruise ship passengers something different at the Port of Charleston — it was market research.
"As we've thought about bringing a newer generation, larger ship to Charleston, we've spent the last two years doing our homework," said Terry Thornton, senior vice president at Carnival Cruise Line. "We wanted to do it the right way."
Miami-based Carnival said Thursday its Sunshine cruise ship will call Charleston home beginning in May 2019, with regular four- and five-day sailings to the Bahamas and occasional longer trips to other destinations. The Sunshine, which launched under another name in 1995, will replace the 28-year-old Ecstasy, which started sailing from Charleston in February 2016.
The news was welcomed by contributors to Cruise Critic's online message boards. CruzeLuver, for example, posted: "Whoo-Hoo! By far my favorite Carnival ship and now she will be sailing year-round 20 minutes from my house (in Summerville)."
The Sunshine is no stranger to this area, having sailed 11 times from Charleston in 2016 and 2017.
Thornton said those trips helped Carnival understand the logistical issues that must be solved when bringing a bigger cruise ship to Union Pier. The Sunshine can accommodate up to 3,002 passengers — nearly 50 percent more than the Ecstasy.
To that end, Carnival and the State Ports Authority say they have adjusted traffic patterns and parking to help alleviate crowding in neighborhoods on the lower peninsula. Thornton said more adjustments will be made in coming months.
"We've proven to ourselves through actual experience that we can generate a really great guest experience, but also avoid any major disruptions to the local community," he said. "Those have been our two biggest goals."
The assurances haven't swayed critics of Charleston's cruise industry, who are fighting the SPA's attempts to build a new passenger terminal to replace the outdated, 1970s-era facility that's currently in use.
Historic preservationists and environmental groups say they don't want to see cruise ships leave entirely, but they'd like them to dock farther away from the city's Historic District. A new cruise terminal, they say, would lead to increased traffic and pollution from an industry that doesn't have any local government-mandated limits.
The SPA has a self-imposed, voluntary limit of no cruise ships larger than 3,500 passengers and no more than 104 cruise ships per year.
"If left unchecked, the cruise industry in Charleston will continue to expand, and real standards are needed to protect public health and preserve Charleston's historic integrity," said Alan Hancock, communications director for the Coastal Conservation League.
Mayor John Tecklenburg said the Sunshine's arrival means "it's more important than ever for the port and the city to work together to minimize the impact of cruise ships on our neighborhoods and citizens."
Tecklenburg added that the city's taxpayers must be "fully reimbursed for any costs associated with their operations," such as additional police to direct traffic.
While the SPA won an initial court battle for the right to build a new $43 million passenger terminal just north of the existing one, opponents have asked for a rehearing.
Thornton said Carnival didn't want to wait to see how the legal fight is resolved before bringing the Sunshine to Charleston.
"We've known for a long time that the Charleston market has the capability to support a newer and larger ship," he said. "Whether or not the new terminal is built, it was time ... the market deserves it and warrants it."
Thornton admits the current terminal isn't optimal, particularly because it can only accommodate one-way traffic — passengers can either leave the ship or board the ship, but both can't be done at the same time.
While Carnival assigns boarding times, Thornton said, "What happens in reality is that people arrive way earlier ... we understand they want to get their vacations started, but it does create congestion."
The SPA plans to open space in an adjacent warehouse where those early arrivals can wait while other passengers leave the ship.
"They won't go through security, but at least they can check in and have a comfortable place to sit," Thornton said. "We believe this will allow us to keep the flow moving."
The current terminal is also getting some upgrades — a new roof, a repaved parking lot and a refinished floor to replace worn carpeting — to improve its aesthetics.
"There will be a few tweaks to make the existing terminal look a little nicer and flow a little nicer for guests," Thornton said.
The first sailing under the Sunshine's full-time stay in Charleston will occur May 18, 2019. The Ecstasy will shift to Jacksonville, Fla., to operate four- and five-day cruises from that city.
Jim Newsome, the SPA's president and CEO, called Carnival's announcement "an important affirmation of their success and commitment to operations in Charleston." He said the cruise industry is an important part of this area's maritime commerce and helps the SPA diversify its business segments.
Carnival accounts for roughly 4 percent of the SPA's annual revenue, according to agency financial documents.
Carnival said it expects about 220,000 passengers will sail on the Sunshine annually once it is based in Charleston. That would roughly match the total number that all cruise lines brought to Charleston in fiscal 2017.
The Sunshine was known as Carnival Destiny prior to a $155 million renovation in 2013, when it was renamed. The renovation added more rooms with private balconies to meet the growing demand for such accommodations by customers. Of the Sunshine's 1,503 guest rooms, 563 include balconies.
Four-day cruises will visit the Bahamian capital of Nassau while five-day voyages will include stops at Nassau and the private Bahamian island of Half Moon Cay. Thornton said occasional trips to Grand Turk, St. Thomas, St. Maarten, San Juan and Amber Cove — the cruise line's private destination off the Dominican Republic — will be offered.
Also, the Sunshine will operate an 11-day Carnival Journeys cruise round-trip from Union Pier from Dec. 3-15, 2019, with stops at St. Thomas, Aruba, Bonaire, Grand Turk and Half Moon Cay.
Abigail Darlington contributed to this report.