I've been following the puzzling saga on the cruise industry in Charleston for some time. And since none of the groups are working together to find a solution, someone must step up and provide one, and that person, at least within the confines of this column, is me.
So, here's my solution: We need three full-time cruise ships. That's a number we can handle. We should focus on attracting two large, luxury-voyage ships. Downtown Charleston can handle about one to two ships per week (about what we have now), and to be respectful of the citizens of Charleston, we need to build two terminals — an embarkation terminal near the Navy Yard (eliminating all embarkation traffic in Charleston) and a new, smaller terminal downtown for ports-of-calls (one-day stops) so the people can walk off the ship into downtown where they can spend money. For those worried about pollution, we'll offer shore-power at both locations, eliminating diesel engines running idle in our city. Based on my research, this plan would create 2,762 new jobs in the region.
Presently, if a tourist wishes to take a cruise in Charleston, they are taken through a maze of barricades before being stopped at three checkpoints, the last of which is a baggage drop. This tourist leaves the facility and parks in a dilapidated warehouse across the street. Then, they have to walk back to a bus that takes them a 1,000 yards where they enter another dilapidated building: the cruise terminal. Welcome to Charleston, home of the No. 1 tourist destination in America. With a cruise terminal like this, are we living up to that image?
The State Ports Authority and the City of Charleston have been working diligently to advance a new terminal that can expand the cruise industry in the Holy City, but a faction of residents concerned about pollution, traffic, and noise have joined the Coastal Conservation League to put a stop to the industry.
I'll go on my 32nd cruise this Christmas with family. But we won't travel from Charleston. We'll travel for nearly 10 hours to Miami, where we'll stay in a hotel the day before we embark and we'll eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner before we board the ship. And we'll do the same on our return. That's revenue and taxes that evaporate from Charleston because we have only one option for cruising here in the form of one of oldest and smallest ships in Carnival's fleet. The Ports Authority says "the cruise industry already contributes $37 million a year to the region's economy," and we could be bringing in a lot more.
Recently, I posted a simple question on social media: "Do you think we should promote and allow the cruise industry to grow in Charleston or push them away?" The overwhelming majority of the nearly 200 responses I received were in favor of growing the cruise industry.
However, some disagreed. One said, "As someone who works downtown it's getting very difficult to get around ... How are we locals supposed to keep functioning if there isn't some better management of the crowds?" Another naysayer added, "I have been on two committees studying this challenge now for over four years, and I can assure you it is not about unlimited cruise ships ... It is all about the balance." Others, who are in favor of cruise ships commented that they think it's just "a bunch of blue bloods against anything from the outside."
Here's my take: The residents worried about traffic, noise, and pollution all have a valid point. But in my opinion, the Coastal Conservation League is using the cruise controversy to increase its power and bring in more money. I'm worried about the damage those kind of special-interests can cause.
When cruise ships are in port, the restaurants and retail shops do much more business which brings more tax revenue and jobs to our city. People who say that cruise travelers don't spend money in the city are just wrong. My solution is a balanced approach serving everyone's interests.
I wonder if the Coastal Conservation League agrees? Or would it serve them better to just shut down the cruise industry in the Charleston?