Discover / Charleston
Save a National Treasure
Charleston, SC
TYPE: Community
The number of cruise ships in Charleston has increased exponentially. | Photo: National Trust
The number of cruise ships in Charleston has increased exponentially. | Photo: National Trust
Preserve the historic character of this beloved coastal city in the face of growing cruise ship tourism.


Several years ago, Charleston became a home port for Carnival Cruise Lines. As a result, the number of cruise ships and passengers has increased exponentially, creating significant impacts throughout the National Historic Landmark district. Though the City of Charleston and the Ports Authority voluntarily agreed in 2010 to cap the number of visits by ships, the agreement is not legally binding. Citing the potential threat that uncontrolled tourism poses to the city’s fragile infrastructure and historic character, the National Trust placed Charleston on “watch status” when its list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places was announced in 2011.

National Significance

Charleston has long been recognized as one of the most beautiful cities in the nation, with a distinguished record of outstanding historic preservation and tourism management. The National Trust believes that sponsoring a cruise tourism impact study, providing a legal review of enforcement authority on cruise tourism, and participating in community dialogue will help Charlestonians develop tools to protect their city’s rich cultural heritage. The lessons learned in Charleston can also help other communities address challenges associated with growing cruise tourism.

Campaign Goals

  • Define enforceable limits on the size, number, and frequency of cruise ships visiting the city’s piers.

Ways To Help

Donate to our campaign to save Charleston.

Tell us why Charleston matters to you.

Posted on January 27, 2014

Written by Virgil McDill, Project Manager

Project Manager

We had some good news recently in our efforts to limit cruise ship traffic in Charleston.

As readers of this update are aware, a U.S. Federal Court ruling issued last year vindicated our claim that the Army Corps must consider the adverse effects of the cruise ship terminal on the adjacent historic district in Charleston. By insisting that the Army Corps take a broader look at nearby historic places before issuing permits, the ruling reinforced our long-standing conviction that the Corps must do a better job complying with federal preservation laws, which protect thousands of historic places across the country.

While the Army Corps and the South Carolina Ports Authority initially sought to appeal this ruling, the National Trust and our preservation allies were pleased that the Army Corps and the Ports Authority have recently dropped their appeal and announced that they will instead start the permit process over.

This is welcome news. As this recent editorial in the Charleston Post and Courier endorsing the decision to abandon the appeal in favor of re-starting the permit process notes, this approach will allow the Corps and the Ports Authority to “take the high road” by adopting “a process that allows the public to ask questions and have input into the SPA project.”

While we still have a ways to go in this effort, but we’re encouraged that re-starting the permit process and giving the public the ability to make their voices heard, is a step in the right direction.

Posted on September 13, 2013

Yesterday, in a victory for preservationists, the U.S. District Court in Charleston ruled that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers failed to follow the National Historic Preservation Act in granting a permit to allow a massive cruise ship terminal to be built on the Charleston waterfront.

Because of this failure to follow the law, we expect that the judge’s written order will revoke the permit, which means the project cannot go forward until the terminal’s impact on historic resources is taken into account.

This is a significant win for preservationists not only in Charleston, but nationwide, because it reinforces other court rulings that the Army Corps must take into account nearby historic properties that could be severely harmed when evaluating the impacts of proposed developments.

Needless to say, we are pleased with this outcome and are grateful to our local partners for their efforts to secure this ruling.

Posted on June 28, 2013

Written by John Hildreth, Project Manager


The cities of Charleston and Savannah are both wrestling with the issue of cruise ships in their communities:  Charleston on how best to accomodate an existing and growing presence of the industry; Savannah on whether or not they want to make the investment to attract more cruise ships.



The action now is in the courts, which means there are long periods of time when there is no visible action.  Recently, however, the SC Supreme Court took action on the case before them. The Charleston Post and Courier ran a story on that action.  I have asked our lead attorney, Will Cook, for his thoughts on where the things stand:

SC Supreme Court:    The court has adopted the recommendation of the special master to dismiss the environmental, height/noise/sign ordinance claims, which we didn’t support. However, the Nuisance and Zoning claims, three in all, were accepted.  In addition we’ve been asked by the supreme court to submit a brief addressing the standing of the plaintiffs to sue and the city’s legal authority to regulate, issues raised by Carnival.  We don’t know, yet, if oral arguments will be ordered prior to a decision.


Federal lawsuit:  The existing suit against the Army Corps of Engineers over their inappropriate application of Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act proceeds.  We will file our amicus brief in federal court mid-July in support of the Preservation Society of Charleston, Historic Ansonborough, and Charlestown Neighborhood Ass’n.  We will likely have a decision on the merits by late Fall 2013.  Regardless of the ruling, there will be an appeal. 


State Court:  There is also an anticipated second state court lawsuit with similar parties against SC Department of Health and Environmental Control that is similar to the federal lawsuit, but based on state law and state regulations.  Our participation is to be determined because the administrative appeal process to the DHEC Board is ongoing.  Once this is complete, the case will move to state court, at which point we’ll have an amicus role.




After 4 years of study and debate the Savannah City Council recently voted unanimously not to fund further study on the construction and location of a cruise terminal for the city.  This action effectively kills the project since the Georgia Ports Authority is not interested in utilizing their holdings for a terminal.

The Savannah Morning News ran a story summarizing the issue.  It is worth noting that the experiences of other communities left high and dry by the cruise industry influenced the council's decison. 


Please check back often for additional updates on Charleston. Also, donate today to support the National Trust's ongoing work at this National Treasure.








Posted on March 26, 2013

Written by John Hildreth, Project Manager

Part of our work in addressing Cruise Tourism impacts in Charleston is providing opportunity for dialogue.  We have an interesting piece of dialogue for you today.

About the time our symposium "Harboring Tourism" on cruise tourism and historic port communities was winding up, the Carnival Cruise ship Triumph was suffering through its well publicized disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.  Since that time Carnival has not received a lot of good news . . . or press.  The Charleston Post and Courier ran the following editorial recently that not only cataloged Carnival's woes, but made a rather humorous conclusion.  While our efforts to help enact regulations to help communities get the right scale for cruise tourism are not directed at Carnival, per se, we thought you might enjoy the following:



 Carnival's Choppy Seas 

Posted: Thursday, March 21, 2013 12:01 a.m.


It just keeps getting worse for Carnival Cruise Lines. 

The month after the nightmare cruise of the Triumph, adrift for five days while 3,000 passengers were subjected to rotting food, no working toilets and no air conditioning, there was more bad news. 

Carnival’s Dream was stranded in Saint Maarten after an emergency generator failed, overflowing toilets and causing power outages. More than 4,000 passengers were flown back to Florida. 

The same week Carnival’s Elation had to be escorted by a tugboat back to New Orleans because of problems with its steering. 

And Carnival’s Legend cut short the cruise for more than 2,000 passengers when it experienced technical issues with its propulsion system. 

But the embarrassment, financial losses and headaches didn’t end there for the corporation whose Fantasy cruise ship is based in Charleston.


This week Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., sent Carnival a bill for $4 million to cover Coast Guard and Navy bailouts of the Splendor in 2010 and the Triumph last month. The bill came with a chiding letter from him in his capacity as chairman of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation:

“In just the past five years I am aware of 90 serious events that have occurred on your cruise ships.” 

Now Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., wants the travel industry to create a standard passenger bill of rights so cruise passengers know what is expected — and what forms of redress are available — when things go wrong. 

And as if to forestall the government from imposing standards on the ships’ mechanical capabilities, Carnival has canceled Triumph’s next 10 cruises while improvements are made to its inadequate fire prevention and backup systems.


That isn’t the end. 

Carnival’s image has suffered. It has even been added to the list of contestants in the Consumerist Worst Companies in America Tournament. 

Last year video game giant Electronic Arts took home the Golden Poo trophy and Bank of America was second for the Silver Poo. This year, some think Carnival stands a good chance of “winning” in its first time around. 

The tournament is structured like the NCAA basketball tournament, and in the first bracket Carnival is up against United Airlines with winners determined by online voting.


Oh, one more thing: Advance bookings for 2013 are behind the same point a year earlier.


Maybe Charleston residents and those historic preservation organizations concerned because no limits have been imposed on the number or size of cruise ships coming to Charleston won’t have to worry so much after all.  (Photo by Gerald Herbert)


 So, that is our dialogue for today.  Please check back often for additional updates on Charleston. Also, donate today to support the National Trust's ongoing work at this National Treasure.


Posted on January 11, 2013

Written by Will Cook, Associate General Counsel, NTHP

Litigation is often the last option in the fight to protect historic places, but in the relatively new and developing field of historic preservation law, legal precedent is not always available. That's why the National Trust's legal team works hard at finding ways to help develop that precedent.

In Charleston, S.C., unregulated and supersized cruise ship tourism provides an opportunity to use the legal theory of “nuisance” to protect historic properties and districts from unreasonable harm caused by cruise tourism, which operates in the absence of any meaningful regulation. Nuisance, one of the oldest causes of action in the law, is designed to protect property owners from unreasonable interference with their right of "quiet enjoyment."

The National Trust's legal advocacy efforts on behalf of preservation interests in Charleston cleared an important hurdle last week after Special Referee Clifton B. Newman, a judge appointed by the South Carolina Supreme Court to consider dismissal motions, recommended in a 27-page "Report and Recommendation that nuisance claims filed against Carnival Cruise Lines be allowed to proceed. The National Trust had strongly supported the use of nuisance claims before the court in its amicus briefs. Judge Newman also supported the ability of historic property owners to sue in order to protect the historic integrity of neighborhoods and buildings that they labor diligently to protect and preserve."

Judge Newman's recommendation to allow the plaintiffs' nuisance claims is especially significant because he simultaneously recommended dismissal of their zoning and environmental claims, which would have left the property owners empty handed, had it not been for the nuisance claims. The judge's recommendation that the cruise ships should not be subject to the protections of the zoning ordinance (such as height limits and view corridor protections) was based primarily on his opinion that the cruise ships should not be considered "structures."

The National Trust has also supported ongoing litigation in federal court challenging the Army Corps of Engineers' lack of compliance with the National Historic Preservation Act and in the ongoing dispute over state permitting for a proposed new cruise ship terminal.

Although the South Carolina Supreme Court must now decide whether to accept or reject Judge Newman's Report, his recommendation to allow nuisance claims to proceed marks a significant milestone in the ongoing litigation over the harmful effects of large cruise ships on nearby historic properties, on Charleston's internationally recognized skyline, and on nationally designated historic districts. It also represents the potential for positive outcomes when the National Trust is able to work collaboratively with local partners and other advocacy groups to help shape litigation strategy.

The National Trust's legal team will continue to support the nuisance claims against Carnival Cruise Lines as the litigation progresses.

Please check back often for additional updates on Charleston. Also, donate today to support the National Trust's ongoing work at this National Treasure.

Posted on November 14, 2012

Written by John Hildreth, Project Manager

The following is an opinion piece that appeared in the Charleston Post and Courier on November 9, 2012.  It was written by Carrie Agnew, Executive Director of Charleston Communities for Cruise Control. She raises valid questions concerning issues addressed by our Charleston National Treasure work.

How many? How big? 


How many is too many? How big is too big? And at what cost does it all come? 

Charleston Communities for Cruise Control (C4) has repeatedly raised issues of number, size and environmental impact with respect to cruise ships on its website, at public hearings, in letters to Carnival and on billboards along I-26. 

Our current billboard poses the question “How many is too many?” One alarming statistic, recently precisely calculated (and vetted by the Environmental Protection Association), is that the Carnival Fantasy idling a single engine while at Union Pier for 10 hours spews sulfur dioxide emissions equivalent to over 34,000 idling tractor-trailers for the same amount of time. And that is after 2015, when the new cleaner fuel standards are fully in place. It should be noted that Carnival and its trade association have been lobbying hard to eliminate this improvement. 

We recall initial assurances that cruise ship visits would be about two per week, which then became an average of two per week, then no more than 104 per year. We have seen those visits concentrated in the already active and crowded months of October and April, with up to four per week. We remain concerned that the dock length and parking planned for the new cruise terminal at Union Pier could accommodate more and bigger ships.  Why else construct a terminal that can handle far greater activity?

With respect to the proposed cruise ship terminal at Union Pier, we were disappointed that our State Ports Authority obtained a necessary permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, sidestepping reviews of impacts on historic sites and the environment as required by the National Historic Preservation Act and National Environmental Policy Act. The SPA was able to do so by characterizing the $35 million rebuild of a dilapidated shed into a new cruise ship terminal as a “maintenance” project.  C4 is heartened by the challenge to this permit now pending in federal court and looks forward to participating in an appropriate future review process. 

Likewise, it is curious that the SPA has never addressed several questions posed by the state’s Office of Coastal and Ocean Resource Management in connection with its piling permit application.  Specifically, what other potential terminal sites were studied?  What are the potential impacts on adjacent neighborhood property values?  Where is their “proof of coordination” with the State Historic Preservation office?  A permit should not be considered without these questions being answered.

Other billboards could pose the question “How big is too big?” The new generation of cruise ships has 13 to 15 decks and carries 5,000 passengers and crew. 

We might also ask “Is there a better terminal location?”  A cruise ship terminal at Union Pier is in the heart of historic districts and residential neighborhoods. Other locations would provide more distance from residents and easier access to ship passengers and provision trucks.  Other cities, notably Boston and Hamilton, Bermuda, have located new terminals farther from historic areas. Venice, Italy, is suffering greatly from having cruise ships dock in the midst of its historic sites.

We are glad to read of the port’s recent reports of favorable developments with respect to cargo business. C4 is pro-port, pro-business and pro-tourism, as well as pro-quality of life and for perpetuating the very characteristics of Charleston that keeps tourists coming.  The balance between the two aspects of life and work in Charleston has been carefully managed in the past with great success, resulting in Charleston recently being voted “Best Tourist Destination in the World.” After so much work by so many, it would be sad to put that designation at risk by allowing the cruise industry to grow unregulated here. 

We join with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, World Monuments Fund, Charleston Preservation Society, Historic Charleston Foundation, Historic Ansonborough Neighborhood Association, Wagener Terrace Neighborhood Association, Charlestown Neighborhood Association, Committee to Save the City, Coastal Conservation League, The Post and Courier, Charleston Mercury and local real estate and hospitality professionals in calling for a reasonable, enforceable regime addressing number, size, frequency and emissions of cruise ships calling in Charleston.


Please check back often for additional updates on Charleston. Also, donate today to support the National Trust's ongoing work at this National Treasure.

Posted on August 27, 2012

Written by John Hildreth, Project Manager

As part of our ongoing work to develop a sensible policy for cruise tourism in Charleston, the National Trust is participating in the regulatory review process for the new terminal that is being constructed. There has been both hopeful and disappointing news on this front.

The root of the issue is just how broadly the reviewing agencies at the state and federal level will consider impacts from the project. The Army Corps of Engineers is taking the most narrow view. The South Carolina Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management is considering expanding their review for their permitting process. Below is information from Charleston’s Coastal Conservation League on an opportunity to request a new hearing to consider these wider impacts. If you are in South Carolina, or care about this issue, please take a minute to add your voice to this effort. 

This is a friendly reminder that the deadline to request another hearing on the new cruise terminal is quickly approaching! A few weeks ago, the South Carolina Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management requested more information from the South Carolina State Ports Authority in order to better assess the port’s permit application for the new cruise terminal. The port has revised their permit application to include additional structural changes they want to make to the warehouse, and also to include the construction of the staging areas for passengers, luggage, and supplies.

The South Carolina Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management must disclose and review all of the impacts associated with the new cruise terminal and the operations it will facilitate. The South Carolina Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management is also required to evaluate alternatives to constructing a new cruise terminal at Union Pier.

Please write to the South Carolina Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management and request a public hearing regarding this revised permit application in order to assess the breadth of impacts associated with the new cruise terminal. 

Please check back often for additional updates on Charleston. Also, donate today to support the National Trust's ongoing work at this National Treasure.

Posted on July 22, 2012

Written by John Hildreth, Project Manager

My name is John Hildreth, and I’m the project manager for the National Trust’s important work in Charleston, South Carolina.

Sometimes when we work on particular places or issues, we have to dive in deeply and become well versed on things that we seldom associate with historic preservation. My first project at the National Trust 25 years ago required me to learn about funerary art, burial practices, and cemetery management. Those weren’t exactly subjects I studied in school. I have referred to myself as an “accidental expert” in many things over the years. 

Now you can add cruise ship tourism to that list.

Last year, the National Trust gave “watch list” status on our annual list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places to the Charleston Waterfront. We took this unprecedented step because of the potential for unregulated cruise ship activity to upset the economic profile and fragile balance of livability that marks Charleston as a special and remarkable city. One of our goals is to conduct an unbiased assessment of cruise ship tourism. 

Working with one of our local partners, the Historic Charleston Foundation, we recently released the results of a study on cruise ship tourism in the historic city of Charleston. The executive summary of the study, entitled The Cruise Industry in Charleston: A Clear Perspective, is enlightening. What we learned, in part, about cruise ship tourism is that:

  • The spending and economic benefit from cruise ship activity is spread across the three county metropolitan region, yet the costs and negative impacts are almost exclusively concentrated in one part of the downtown historic district.
  • The City of Charleston receives no fees or head taxes from the State Ports Authority, yet must provide services to those passengers once off the ship. The State Ports Authority collects an estimated $10 million annually from parking and fees from cruise ships.
  • The extent of positive economic impact to the economy is inflated, and even if the inflated numbers are accepted, does not justify exemption from similar regulations that apply to other tourist activities in the city.
  • There is a real potential that cruise ship tourism could begin to displace other forms of tourism in the city.

The report makes several recommendations, including: formation of a citizens commission for oversight of the cruise ship activity; management of cruise ships similar to management of other tourism activity within the city; collection of reasonable fees by the city; and continued study of the industry’s impact on the city.

The National Trust provided significant funding for this study that was conducted by Miley and Associates. We believe that in methodology and findings, this study can be utilized by other communities as they develop their own approaches to cruise ship tourism. And of course, we hope this study can lead to a better understanding of impacts and more informed public policy regarding cruise ship operations in Charleston. 

For me, it is an important document in my continuing education as an “accidental expert” in cruise ship tourism.

Please check back often for additional updates on Charleston. Also, donate today to support the National Trust's ongoing work at this National Treasure.

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Emilea on February 01, 2014
I have been coming to Charleston and Seabrook sense I was very little. It wasn't into very recently I realized the beauty and historical suffinicance of it. The modern part is cool, but I like the old part with the old style houses and ironwork. I was also happy on my last trip down there to see a duple 1st National Flags flying. Keep them up! Charleston wouldn't be the same without the old part and I might even loose some of my interest. If it became run down, it would loose a lost of the forest income. I LOVE Charleston and will make sure to do all I can to preserve it and we hope you will too!!
Raymond Samuel on August 16, 2013
I was born here in South Carolina and I have a great love and respect for this state, and Charleston was the first major city in the state, it is special. I own A&B Janitorial Services LLC here in Charleston, and we also do Property Presavations, we would like to volenteer with some of the resturations if needed. Our phone number is (843) 499-4225. Thanks for your time and concidration
K. Nickless, Ladson, SC on June 09, 2012
My favorite cities are Charleston and Venice, Italy. Both have a rich maritime history and a visceral link to the water that surrounds and envelops them. Both struggle with the pressures of tourism. Charleston is home. The view from a sailboat on the harbor has barely changed since Audubon painted Long Billed Curlews in the marsh. In 2009, Venetians staged a mock funeral, declaring Venice dead, killed by tourism. Not Charleston. It will live, balancing tourism and history. La dolce vita!

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