While business at the port of Savannah has outpaced Charleston’s handily in recent years, there is one maritime area where Charleston leads: the cruise industry.
The city of Savannah is interested in closing that gap, and is likely to spend $279,500 for a two-part study investigating environmental and navigation issues related to cruises. It would also evaluate three possible passenger terminal sites.
Perhaps Charleston, a home port for Carnival Cruise Lines, could offer some advice to Savannah city fathers, who are hoping to draw cruise ships and the 288 jobs and $8.7 million in annual salaries associated with them (as estimated in an earlier study). How about:
¦ Take a hard look at your numbers. Financial predictions vary widely — as in a study commissioned by the S.C. State Ports Authority and another commissioned by the Historic Charleston Foundation on the benefits of the cruise industry.
¦ By all means check out the environmental issues that come with cruise ships. Some ports impose strict rules about the kind of wastewater that can be expelled and the type of fuel cruise ships can burn while they are in port.
¦ Be kind to your citizens and provide shoreside power for cruise ships. Make sure cruise lines wanting to do business in Savannah know they will have to comply. Otherwise, they could idle at dock for hours, spewing particles associated with heart and lung disease.
¦ Make your rules enforceable. A city ordinance or an air-tight contract that meets with citizen approval would be a good start.
¦ Determine what direct costs the city incurs (traffic officers, police, waste pickup) because of cruise ships, and get compensation for them.
¦ Listen to your constituents — not just businesses that hope to make money from cruises but preservationists, neighbors, environmentalists and people who control traffic.
Those who have concerns about an unbridled cruise industry are not necessarily snobs who don’t like people in flip flops. Show them respect even if you disagree. If you don’t, you might make some formidable foes.
Already Savannah is demonstrating insight that Charleston could find instructive. Savannah’s City Council is being transparent in deciding where it would put a passenger terminal. The site, after all, makes a huge difference to the success or failure of the cruises — and the quality of life of residents, business people and tourists. With diverse input, the city might better understand complications of building right up against the historic district of Savannah.
Further, its tourism leadership council has done some work of its own to ensure that Savannah’s eyes are wide open before entering the cruise business.
In March, the council invited a former Royal Caribbean Cruises executive to talk about the possibility, and Maria Sastre was blunt: “The city has a lot to offer as a cruise ship destination. But it would become a different Savannah.”
She acknowledged the strength of the community’s service industry, hospitality and history.
But she cautioned that it is not unusual for cruise destinations to become “homogenous” and look and feel like any other port.
Her advice was similar to what a number of Charleston residents suggested to the SPA: focus recruitment efforts on smaller lines with ships that accommodate 1,500 or fewer guests. Those cruise lines tend to seek “authentic” tourism experiences as offered in Savannah. And Charleston?
Yes, the ports of Savannah and Charleston are in direct competition for shipping business and possibly for federal funds to deepen their respective shipping channels.
But neighbors, after all, should help each other out, even if only by learning from their mistakes.