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Cruisin For Deals

A Look at Charleston's Cruise Ship Controversy

  • Cruise Ship Peninsular, Charleston,-SouthCarolina, Reuters

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    A ship's crewmembers stop for a picture in front of a former slave market in Charleston, S.C.Paul Motter

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    The Audubon Gallery on King Street in Charleston, S.C.Paul Motter

The historical town of Charleston, South Carolina is battling a modern-day sea invasion -- not of mythical pirates or Civil War battle ships.  The city is being invaded by cruise line tourists (and the crew) that critics have characterized as something akin to the kidnapping of Charleston city fathers by Blackbeard the Pirate in 1718. 

The current City Council just endorsed a $35-million Port Authority project to build a new cruise terminal due north of the current dock. 

While most cities love cruise ships, which bring in thousands of money-spending passengers, some local residents claim that the new terminal is “prime waterfront property." And the most outspoken opponents say cruise ships attract the “wrong kind” of tourist; described at a City Council meeting as, “Heavy-drinking, balloon hat, flip flop, fanny pack wearers.” 

Byron Miller, spokesperson for the South Carolina Ports Authority, found that characterization offensive. He noted the benefits of the new 35 acre facility to locals: seamless access with on-site parking (to relieve tie-ups on the city’s narrow streets) and garden and park facilities for local residents. He also points out that the cargo terminals, just due north of the planned cruise facility; actually conduct 96 percent of the ship activity of Charleston anyway.

Some Charleston residents claim the ships themselves are a bad fit for the historic and beautifully preserved city. They say a modern cruise ship, “belching” black exhaust as it keeps the ship powered while docked, is a blemish on the skyline where many buildings date back to the early 1800s. 

The detractors have a point. Charleston is truly a beautifully preserved “jewel” of American history. On a recent Seabourn cruise I had the chance to check out Charleston myself.  It is both a beautiful city and a vital port. I had no idea it was so lovely until I stopped there on my cruise. 

The city is on a tiny peninsula flanked by the Ashley and Cooper Rivers, replete with cobblestone streets, narrow alleyways, horse-drawn carriages and the imposing artillery and stacks of cannon-balls in Battery Park. 

Charleston was ranked the second-best city in America by Travel and Leisure Magazine in 2011 and the top city in America by Conde Nast --pretty impressive. The Charlestowne mansions on Bay Street, just minutes from the cruise terminal, have broker listings from $8 to $23 million. 

Cruise ships are nothing new to Charleston, which has had almost regular cruise service since 2003, starting with Norwegian Gem (12 to 36 sailings per year through 2009), Celebrity Mercury in 2010, and now Carnival with year-round cruises scheduled through 2013 and likely beyond. 

Miller reminds us those magazine awards were awarded even with the “cruise element in place,” so the cruise effect can’t be that bad. As for benefits, he says the cruises annually will add $37-million in economic output, 407 jobs, 16.2 million in salaries and wages and $3.5-million in sales and income taxes.  But as far as the “prime waterfront location” for the proposed cruise terminal, I only saw dilapidated warehouses surrounded by average condominiums. 

A friend of mine, Joel Oppenheimer, who owns the Audubon Gallery in Chicago, so loves Charleston he opened his only sister Audubon gallery in the tony King Street shopping district. Gallery manager, Burton Moore, claims he has never seen a cruise tourist there, even though it is only about a ten minute walk from the port. 

“The problem is that too many tourists never get past the “Old City Market,” a rambling open shopping street directly adjacent to the cruise terminal. “They see Charleston as a Disneyland. But it’s not, it’s our home.” 

“We are a city, not a museum," said Miller. "We attract a broad and diverse group, not just one class of tourists.” He cites a study that says some 38 percent of cruise guests stay in a hotel before the cruise, and a hotel finder at the city’s visitor’s center told me many tourists come to her after their cruise seeking a hotel. 

Without a doubt, Charleston is the kind of city where one visit is not enough; you will want to see more. So the battle continues. 

The Coastal Conservation League filed a lawsuit against Carnival Cruise Lines claiming (Miller points out incredulously) that a docked ship “becomes a building,” which then exceeds the city’s height and viewing restrictions. They say a docked cruise ship “dominates the skyline from the entire city.” 

I can tell you I barely saw our cruise ship at all until I was within a block of it. The City Council points out that Charleston’s most historic streets were named after wharves and aligned to allow people to see what ships were in town. The City Council described the suit as “an outrageous and abusive scare tactic” only meant to drive Carnival away. 

Unfortunately such tactics can have some influence. A few cities have invested in port facilities only to have the cruise lines decide to leave or scale back with little notice--Mobile Alabama, for example. So the City Council is helping to oppose the suit on Carnival’s behalf. 

The city fathers are firmly convinced the cruise industry is worth the investment, and the new $35-million cruise terminal one block north of the current location is going forward. 

Carnival has committed to stay in Charleston for an undisclosed time, with cruises currently scheduled as far out as Carnival has any cruises scheduled - through 2013 at the very least.

Paul Motter is the co-founder and editor of CruiseMates.com cruise travel guide.

Paul Motter is the editor of CruiseMates.com, an online cruise guide. Follow him on Twitter @cruisemates.