Save Charleston's cultural character from excessive tourism

Visitors walk in front of the Custom House in April. (Wade Spees/File)

When my younger daughter was 5 years old I began taking her to the Christmas Eve carol singing under the arch at Washington Square Park at the foot of Fifth Avenue in New York City. And when she had a daughter she took her to the singing. There used to be a small oom-pah band and a conductor from Julliard, and a volunteer neighborhood group that passed out sheets with the words to the familiar songs.

But not this year. She said she wasn't going because it's all changed: The tourists have discovered it.

"Last year you couldn't get anywhere near the band," she told me, and you could barely see the conductor. The volunteers seemed overwhelmed and only the people up front had sing-along sheets. Almost none of the crowd had children, who used to all gather in the front and sing "Rudolph," for many years with Johnny Marks, who wrote it and lived only a few blocks away. That tradition was over. A cherished neighborhood ritual for years now gone, now turned into a tourist "attraction," impersonal, mechanical, soulless.

Tourism is the system by which the soul of a city is sucked out by strangers.

It has happened, especially on holidays - St. Patrick's, Halloween, Christmas, and New Years - to New York City. It has happened to Venice, where there are no less than 353 tourists to each resident and the whole character of the city has transformed to cater to, and sometimes fleece, the outsiders. Much the same, in my experience, has happened to Florence, Salzburg, Athens, Jamaica, Key West, Miami, and Orlando, and, from the non-industry articles one reads, to most other world capitals in Europe and the Far East. Cities are changed because of tourism, and not for the better.

Tourism, let's be frank about it, is based for the most part on the seven deadly sins - greed and pride on the host side, envy and gluttony on the other, sloth and lust on both, and wrath lying in the end with God. Its only virtue for the prey is that it causes hotels to be built, a few businesses like restaurants and souvenir stands to flourish, and some service industries like horsecart rides and rickshaws and guides to exist.

The bottom line, however, is that the city generally takes and keeps only a small portion of the money spent in the industry - figures range from 15 to 50 percent - with the bulk of it going to the carriers, tour groups, national chain hotels, and the sort, and the cruise business even works to reduce that by providing everything, including souvenir shops, on board.

Tourism's only virtue for the predator is that it sometimes gains some short-term information for the money spent locally, trinkets that might end up on the mantelpiece back home, and T-shirts for the kids.

But the effect of that is known in the trade as "dilution of culture," the local culture changing to accommodate the visitors and losing its original character, in the way that Majorca, which used to be a quiet fishing village, was transformed when all the fishermen took jobs with the hotels and restaurants that brought tourists in to see the fishing village.

It is a basic scientific law called the observer effect, that the observer affects the thing observed, as when checking the pressure in a tire changes the pressure slightly, or when using a photon to make an electron visible alters the path of the electron. There is no avoiding or escaping it, and it happens in social arrangements as it does in science.

So imagine what must happen to a city selected by the leading travel magazine as the No. 1 American tourist destination for four years in a row: it will change to accommodate the tourists, allowing cruise ships whatever their environmental effect, building hotel rooms at increasingly steeper rates (1,500 new rooms already slated), expanding attractions and destinations, opening new restaurants and bars - and going as far away as India to tap into the Asian trade.

Of course, Charleston residents have to pay the price for this, particularly in the general overcrowding of the peninsula, especially of streets and restaurants, intrusion of tourists into private areas, parking meters occupied and residential street parking squeezed, air pollution from cruise ships in addition to cruise buses and cars, and noise and general hecticness of pace, far from the traditional Charlestonian atmosphere. Very few share in on the receiving end of this price.

Over recent years Charleston has taken some steps to confront this tourist invasion and figure out how to deal with it, the latest being the Klein report to the Tourist Management Committee last month. Obviously none has worked well so far, and judging from the piddling suggestions made this time around (bike lanes, streetcars, doubling meter rates) these won't either.

Something bolder and more sweeping is needed, something commensurate with the problem. Charleston, and similarly tourist-impacted cities, should quickly bring a halt to the invasion: put an immediate cap on the number of hotel rooms, stop cruise ship landings, reduce parking for cruise buses, organize neighborhood parking by residential permit only, raise indoor but not street parking rates.

For a start. I'm sure a true Tourist Management Committee could think of others.

We must begin with this adage always in mind: Tourism is a system that sucks out the soul of a city by strangers.

Kirkpatrick Sale, the author of 12 books, is a resident of Mount Pleasant.