More tourists need more regulation

Charleston, increasingly a magnet for visitors like those at the Custom House on Thursday, is looking to update its strategy for achieving a balance between the tourism economy and livability for its residents. (Wade Spees/File)

Since 1998, tourism has moved to a whole new level in Charleston:

The city has earned one accolade after another in travel magazines for its charm, romance, manners, food and outdoor opportunities.

Carnival Cruise Lines has home-ported the 2,050-passenger Fantasy here, averaging two trips a week.

The number of hotel rooms on the peninsula has ballooned and is still growing.

And the number of visitors to the city has jumped more than 37 percent from 3.5 million in 1998 to 4.8 million in 2014.

But, besides a few tweaks, the city’s 17-year-old tourism management plan hasn’t changed. It’s no surprise then that exploding tourism, guided by outdated rules, has diminished the city’s livability and its appeal to residents with business to do on the peninsula.

On the other hand, restaurant and hotel owners are enjoying the city’s popularity and are loath to see it diminished.

So a host of residents, businesspeople, city officials and hospitality industry representatives are to be commended for recognizing the need to work together to produce solutions that allow a vibrant hospitality economy without detracting from the city’s livability.

And all would do well to give the city time — but not too much time — to implement the committee’s common-sense recommendations. The committee recommends anywhere from six months for some fixes to three years for others.

Those changes can’t happen without the approval of City Council, which is likely to take up the issue in April.

It is no surprise that much of the committee’s report involves traffic and parking. Some of the recommendations could be done quickly to make sure carriages are amply separated from each other and tour guides keep sidewalks and doorways passable.

Others, like assessing the impact of the dramatic increase of hotel rooms, would be ongoing.

The committee estimates it could take the city two or three years to explore adding a visitor center farther north on the peninsula in conjunction with a new transit center, so visitors would leave their cars there and be shuttled to their destinations.

And equally challenging will be studying the feasibility of introducing trolleys or a better bus transit system on the peninsula.

Of course, ordinances are only as good as their enforcement. Even before the committee had finished its work, the city added three tourism enforcement officers. The plan calls for the city to assess in June whether more than three are needed, and to add TEOs as tourism grows.

The plan calls for establishing a department for tourism and special events management to coordinate tourism-related activities that are now handled by various city departments. It also calls for hiring a full-time coordinator to see that adequate signage is used, the impact on neighborhoods is mitigated and remote parking is encouraged for special events.

The committee wants bicyclists to be provided better accessibility and a public transit rail system established.

And it wants decisions to be based on data, hence reviewing parking needs and projections with the purpose of reducing vehicular congestion before developing a comprehensive parking plan “for all modes, user types and land uses including colleges, schools and institutions.”

The committee didn’t exactly ignore the hot-button issue of cruise ships, but its recommendations in that regard did not advance solutions significantly.

It was clear that those who attended a meeting Monday to hear the suggestions liked the idea of requiring cruise ships to plug into electric power while at dock instead of using diesel fuel and idling. But the recommendation said only “continue the dialogue on the installation of shore power.” The dialogue has been mostly one-sided thus far with the port holding out and the city keeping mum.

Further, the report called for no real change to the city’s stand on regulating the number and size of cruise ships. The suggestion is for the city to “endorse and document the resolution ... adopted by City Council in 2010 that commits to a maximum of 104 cruise ships per year that carry no more than 3,500 passengers per ship and no more than one ship to be docked at a time.” Many residents would like those restrictions to be codified legally.

Overall, though, the diverse committee managed to produce reasonable strategies for “preserving Charleston’s authenticity and sense of place” while “maintaining the critical and delicate balance between Charleston’s residential quality of life and the tourism economy.”

City Council should recognize the need for better tourism management and approve the plan. And city government should be open to revisiting the concerns regularly as tourism, and the need to control it, grows.