Fixing Charleston's Cruise Problems

| Friday, 07 Oct. 2011
The official port of Charleston is NOT in the historic residential district.

Fixing Charleston's Cruise Problems
The city of Charleston, South Carolina is a vital American heritage historic site. It played a hugely significant role in both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, and was once the second busiest port in the United States. It also just took the number two position in the list of "Best Cities in the United States" by readers of Travel and Leisure Magazine.

The city became a home cruise port somewhat recently with the introduction of five-day cruises to the Bahamas aboard Carnival Fantasy. Unfortunately, the presence of this cruise ship has caused a controversy within the city due to its effect on the local community.

The city is one of the best preserved 19th century cities in America. It resides on the tip of a tiny peninsula where it was founded and where the historic district remains largely unchanged. The local residents are the caretakers of the American heritage of the city, since the most important historic buildings are its homes. Earlier in the year, concerns about cruises led the National Trust for Historic Preservation to place Charleston on "watch status."

Right now Carnival is boarding and disembarking passengers on these budget five-day Bahamas cruises in a cruise terminal that is just a few hundred yards away from the historic district. It is important to note that the ship does not use the city as a port of call with extensive tour offerings; it uses the city as a place for cruisers to park their cars and board the ship.

When the ship is in port to drop off its approximately 2000 passengers, one the city's major arteries, Bay Street, is backed up for a mile. There are few alternatives to this road because of the geography of the tiny peninsula.

While having a cruise in a town is generally regarded as a boon for local merchants, in this case the reports are that local merchants are suffering more than they are benefitting from the location of the cruise terminal. In fact - the city has a rule for dropping off passengers that "walk-ups are not permitted." Every passenger must arrive in a vehicle, so there is no true benefit to the locals for having the cruise port within the downtown area.

Once again, cruisers are not coming to Charleston for sight-seeing; they are coming to board the ship. I don't have verification for this, but my guess is that the vast majority of these cruisers are driving and parking to take this cruise, not flying in and staying in hotels. The reason for my conclusion is that this is not a unique itinerary; it is one that would mostly appeal to the nearby drive-in residents.

In other words, the only thing the city is experiencing every five days is a massive traffic jam in one of the most historic, beautiful and vital historic residential areas in the entire United States.

As a result of the presence of the ship, the city's status as a historic site has been put "on watch" by several important organizations. The World Monument Fund just placed Charleston on its list of the world's "most endangered cultural sites." This not a boon for the city, which relies heavily on tourism, it is a black eye.

I spoke to one of the merchants on the city's most upscale and frequented shopping street, King Street, which runs north and south just a few hundred yards away from the cruise ship terminal location - Burton Moore, purveyor of the Audubon Gallery at 190 King Street. I asked Burton what his personal experience has been with the city becoming a cruise ship home port.

"Nothing but bad, I am sorry to say."

I asked him more about his business and whether the cruise ship has helped it.

"We have been in this location for over a decade," he said, "and although we are right in the middle of a historic residential district and sell historic American artwork, I would say we rely on tourists for 75% of our business. People come to our gallery from all over the southern region."

"Unfortunately, I cannot say I have ever seen a single customer who was in town because of the cruise ship. For the most part, the only merchants that seem to benefit are the ones directly across the street from the terminal. I have even talked to those merchants, and based on their stories even they are not happy about the situation. One restaurant owner told me that every time the ship comes in he gets a "dine & dash," situation." This means they not only didn't leave a tip, they didn't pay the bill.

When this Carnival ship is in port it dominates the skyline. This authentic city has few buildings more than two stories tall. The ship is not "cold ironing," the process of hooking up to local power, it burns its bunker fuel-powered generators and belches black smoke the entire time it is in port.

Keeping in mind that King Street is the most upscale shopping street in the city, and only a five to ten minute walk from the cruise terminal. The fact that the cruisers are not going there says a lot - that they are not there to see the city of Charleston, they are only there to access the ship.

Right now the city is contemplating building a larger cruise terminal in the same location, in the hope of attracting even more cruise ship visits. But experience shows us that cruise lines can be unpredictable about port cities. A port can lose it attraction to the cruise lines. The cities of Jacksonville, Florida; Mobile, Alabama, and San Diego all catered to the cruise lines by building new facilities only to lose their cruise business very soon after a large investment. The city of Mobile was abandoned with no warning at all, receiving notice that its only ship would be moved by reading it in the newspapers.

Carnival should agree to move the Carnival Fantasy ship operations to the North Charleston Port Facility further up the Charleston Harbor, and the city should help them do this. This facility has easier access to interstate Highway 26 and is half the distance from the airport compared to the downtown terminal. It has all the benefits of the regional location of Charleston without being a detriment to the historic look and status of the downtown area. North Charleston is the official Port of Charleston, and has much more qualified facilities for provisioning the cruise ship and offloading waste.

Building a new cruise terminal in the same Southern Charleston location will not ease the traffic problems or promote more business for the local merchants.

The picture below shows the cruise terminal (the red X) and the location of the King Street merchant I consulted. Just north of the Charleston Naval Complex is the much larger cargo terminal. This where the Carnival ship should relocate. The scale on the map is one inch equals one mile.

Charleston, SC. The red X is the current cruise terminal. A is the location of Audubon Art Gallery

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