Until a few months ago, I couldn’t understand why there was such a hubbub over cruise ships in Charleston. Carnival has used the city as a port of debarkation for a few years now, and it has brought a consistent stream of visitors to a city that is so reliant on tourism.
Charlestonians don’t exactly have a great reputation for knowing a good thing when they see it. Before the Civil War, they blocked railroad lines from entering the city, which required trains to stop at the city line, unload their cargo into wagons, and haul it to the docks. This conservatism helped lead the city into a decades-long funk–I suppose the Civil War didn’t help–that only dissipated when the city’s architectural treasures became en vogue in the 1920s.
So I was surprised when the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed Charleston on its America’s 11 Most Endangered Places Watch List. But I read up on the issue, and my opinion quickly shifted. Charleston neighborhood associations and local and national organizations aren’t outright opposed to the cruise ships, they just want to make sure Charleston’s unique character doesn’t drown under a sea of cruise-goers.
Their main point of contention is that the city has control over just about everything tourism related, and this has helped it retain most of Charleston’s nostalgic feel (I could do without all the horse-drawn carriages, however). But when it comes to cruise ships, the state of South Carolina calls the shots via the State Ports Authority. Carnival, like any for-profit enterprise, likely has desires of growing its business in Charleston. This could mean more departure dates and/or larger ships that further tower over Charleston’s low-slung structures. Also, anyone who has traversed cramped East Bay Street knows the city just doesn’t have the infrastructure in place to handle a mass of people at once.
Since the National Trust’s list was released a few months ago, there seems to be stories on the issue every other day. The Charleston City Council is seeking to pass an ordinance that requests Carnival to ask the city’s permission before adding more departure dates–currently set at 104 per year–but that measure is not going to appease those seeking rigid regulations, nor should it.
Without firm, legal restrictions on Charleston’s cruise industry from the State Ports Authority, this issue won’t go away, and the city will remain at risk of losing the facets that makes it such a desirable destination to venture in the first place. With a firm cap on the number, size, and frequency of cruise ships in Charleston, everyone will benefit in the long run.