Introducing the Charleston Waterfront

July 22, 2012 by John Hildreth

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.

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