Todd and Natalie Shaver live in the foothills of Tennessee. And they are like thousands of other folks (2,056 at a time, to be specific) who love a Carnival cruise. They love the festive atmosphere, ample buffets, live entertainment, sun, sea, and all the pleasures that Carnival’s “fun ships” offer. The Shavers also love Charleston. “We’ve got ‘America’s vacationland’ in the beautiful Smokies only 40 minutes away, but we adore Charleston. We visit every chance we get,” Todd says. So they were doubly excited when the Holy City became a Carnival home port. They booked a cruise and happily drove the six and a half hours from Tennessee to come here and set sail.
Like most of their fellow Carnival-goers, the couple didn’t mind too much that they had to wait in line outside the Union Pier entrance, then slowly drive through a concrete maze of ugly yellow jersey barriers.
They waited to present passports to officials under makeshift white tents; they waited some more; and finally inched closer to the terminal to unload luggage, then exited to another line to wait to park.
Hey, the set up ain’t perfect, or pretty, but it more or less works, and golly, it’s not really such a big deal. There’s an all-inclusive vacation waiting for them on the other end—five to seven days of unfettered Fantasy fun.
But it is a big deal to others and hardly a vacation. The sub-par Union Pier condition is a big deal to State Ports Authority (SPA) officials, Charleston tourism leaders, and proud citizens who cringe at the unsightliness and inefficiency of the outdated facility. It’s a big deal to residents in neighborhoods most directly impacted by cruise-related traffic, noise, and alleged pollution. It’s a big deal to port workers who need paychecks. It’s a big deal to preservationists and environmentalists who fear more than jobs are at stake. It’s a big deal to one of the nation’s busiest ports, which has seen operating revenues decline each of the last three years. It’s a big deal to a mayor and to Charlestonians who dream of reclaiming 35 acres of industrial waterfront for public use. It’s a whoppin’ 855-foot, 10-deck, 70,367-ton ship; it’s a $35-million terminal renovation project. It’s a big deal.
Most of Carnival’s cruise patrons have no idea that the convoluted maze they’ve just driven through is symbolic of the complex issues the local cruise question has raised. Most are probably clueless that outside the chain-link and barbed-wire fence that surrounds Charleston’s Union Pier, there’s a heated controversy afloat, with billboards sparring, a lawsuit pending, and letters to the editor flying.
But the Shavers understand. They penned one of those letters, expressing both their affinity for Carnival cruises and their deep love—and growing concern—for Charleston. “It’s one of our favorite places of all time,” says Todd. “But recently when we stayed at the Harborview Inn to celebrate our 10th anniversary, the Fantasy was in port, and our beloved view of the harbor by Waterfront Park was dwarfed by the massive ship. We realized that Charleston had better be careful.”
Just as a big ship requires proper ballast to stay afloat, a small, peninsular, residential city like Charleston must find balance amidst competing demands of tourism, livability, and workability as it sails forward. And the issue of trust, or lack thereof, seems to slosh around in the passing wake. The water is getting choppy; the cruise question remains contentious.
“Cruise Control” supporters seek assurances of enforceable limits—no more than 104 ships a year, which is the voluntary limit the SPA has agreed to and far exceeds the 88 cruise calls in 2011 and the 84 ships expected to port in Charleston in 2012. The SPA seeks to fulfill their state-mandated mission to promote maritime commerce—of which cruises represent only 4.4 percent of vessel traffic—and keep Carnival Corporation, the world’s leading cruise operator with a global fleetof 101 ships and 8.5 million guests annually, as a valuable client. They claim that setting statutory cruise limits would send a chilling message to the more crucial maritime cargo industry they continue to court, and that voluntary promises and market indications will keep the cruise industry here in scale. Everyone wants Charleston to prosper as an historic port city in the 21st century, but there are differing perspectives on what that should look like and where the tipping point lies.
So what are the big questions, the underlying concerns? Who is calling the shots? And who stands to win or lose as this charming city cruises into the future? Is the cruise industry in Charleston merely a harmless, and even economically beneficial, matter of “Southern Charm meets Big Fun,” as Carnival’s website proclaims? Or is it perhaps more Southern Town meets Big Trouble, as the website’s ironic illustration of a massive ship obscuring the renowned profile of Rainbow Row might suggest?
“Welcome to Charleston!”
This is what Ansonborough resident Carrie Agnew hears, loud and clear, early on Saturday mornings when the Fantasy pulls into port and loudspeakers proclaim its arrival to passengers. “I don’t need to hear ‘Welcome to Charleston,’ I know where I am,” she says. And she knows where she stands on this issue, as one of the outspoken residents who is not pleased with the noise, soot, and traffic hassles stemming from having a cruise terminal in her backyard. But while the ships may slip into port in the early morning, they didn’t simply appear here overnight. Charleston embarked on the cruise course decades ago, perhaps even centuries ago.
Steamships cruised in and out of our harbor in the early 1900s, and by 1920, seven different steamship companies regularly called on the port. From 1942 to 1974, Charleston lacked a dedicated passenger terminal, but the opening of the current Union Pier terminal, on land the city gave to the Port Authority in the 1950s, reinvigorated interest in expanding the local cruise market. There were on-again, off-again efforts throughout the ’80s and ’90s to cultivate more cruise business. From 2003 to 2004, the city’s Cruise Ship Task Force recommended moving the terminal to the north end of Union Pier, as had been proposed by a 1996 Union Pier Concept Master Plan that was shelved when BMW began cargo operations there.
So in September 2009, when Carnival announced intentions to home port in Charleston, SPA president and CEO Jim Newsome and his colleagues were clearly pleased, but they were also prepared for possible push back. “We recognized that we would need to reach out and engage the community on this,” says Newsome, who had already signed the Carnival contract. “We organized a professional outreach program, which is unusual for us, and have held more than 100 meetings with community members and organizations. There’s been extraordinary public input throughout this process. We’ve listened to concerns and made adjustments to plans based on that valuable input. We started this, and we have to be respectful of this city, but we’ve got to move forward now.”
They’ve also funded studies, in particular an often-cited economic benefit study authored by professors John Crotts and Frank Hefner of the College of Charleston that reports a $37-million positive economic impact tied to cruise-related activity. While some critics have poked holes in these numbers, there’s no question that increased cruise activity translates to jobs and money. And even many who are wary of cruise impacts are salivating at one of the deal’s undeniable payoffs: the Union Pier revitalization plan—the SPA’s quid-pro-quo offering to the city.
On the Waterfront
The prospect of adding reclaimed waterfront property back to the city’s tax rolls for future mixed-use redevelopment puts a gleam in Mayor Joseph P. Riley, Jr.’s eye. “To open that harbor vista from Market Street and in front of the Custom House south to the waterfront is a wonderful opportunity for the city, a wonderful gift to future generations,” Riley says. “It will extend the street grid system into that area, with sidewalks and parks, and in time with new homes, offices, and shops.”
The plan is contingent on the SPA sinking $35 million into a new passenger terminal on the northern end of Union Pier. If the plan goes forward, the subsequent revitalization will undoubtedly be a huge asset and draw to Charleston, another jewel for a city recently crowned the “Top City in the United States” as well as the world’s third best city by the readers of Condé Nast Traveler. But not so fast, cautions Jonathan B. Tourtellot, a National Geographic fellow and founding director of the Center for Sustainable Destinations. Increased cruise action at a beautiful new Union Pier terminal may ultimately diminish and damage Charleston’s attractiveness, he warns.
“The problem with cruises is that they can be the strip mine of tourism,” says Tourtellot, whose organization conducted a survey in 2008 that ranked Charleston 15th worldwide and first in the U.S. for responsible destination stewardship, citing “historic preservation and forward-thinking on tourism.” “Cruise ships can flood a city with people who are not necessarily interested in the place, and it becomes a turn-off to other tourists and locals. The most egregious case in the U.S. is Key West, but it’s a pattern we’ve seen repeated in Dubrovnik and Venice. Charleston has a strong history of fine-tuning the balance of tourism,” he adds, “but if the [cruise] volume turns up and that balance tilts, it’s very hard to back out. In Dubrovnik, it’s forever changed the nature of the place.”
Tourtellot’s concern has been echoed by other significant national groups. The National Trust for Historic Preservation added a “Watch Status” to its annual Most Endangered List and gave the inaugural nod to Charleston. The World Monuments Fund placed the Holy City on its Watch List shortly thereafter. “The concerns in Charleston echo challenges faced in many historic port cities with cruise ship tourism,” wrote the World Monuments Fund on its website. “Balancing the preservation of heritage, quality of life needs, and new economic opportunities is a constant and complex dialogue… The rapid, unregulated growth in cruise ship arrivals compels the development of a sustainable plan that will encourage tourism and a thriving historic center.”
Boost or Boondoggle?
Newsome agrees that the tourism cost-benefit question is at best a secondary factor in the cruise equation. “In my view, cruising is a maritime commerce business, not a tourism business,” he says. “It’s more like an airport. Sure they may stay a night or two before or after the cruise, but for us it’s about the maritime commerce.”
A recent study coauthored by Crotts suggests that cruise passengers do, in fact, stay in area hotels a night or two on either end—resulting in $4.9 million in hotel revenues. The SPA has a list of testimonials from businesses, from Jestine’s Kitchen to Boone Hall Plantation, that report a boost from cruise traffic. Others, however, claim there is little direct tourism benefit—and what’s there is mainly of the T-shirt and praline variety—and that cruise congestion keeps away the more traditional tourists who do spend money with local establishments. Historic Charleston Foundation hopes to bring more clarity to this analysis through a commissioned independent economic impact study, with results not yet available at the time this article went to press.
What is known is that solid numbers, where they exist, do not tell the whole story, and whiffs of potential profits have not led to consensus among the local business community. The Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce reports that a majority of its surveyed members do support cruise tourism, according to Mary Graham, senior vice president of the Chamber. “From our perspective, the cruise industry is a piece of the port business, and historically, when the port has done well, the local economy has done well,” Graham says.
But other influential leaders in the local hospitality industry, notably Hank Holliday—who has been dubbed “The Market Man” for his instrumental role in revitalizing the historic City Market (a Carnival passenger hot spot)—are vocal cruise opponents,
arguing that cruise tourism is detrimental to a sustainable tourism-based economy. T-shirt stands and fudge shops are not the type of businesses that offer high wages and long-term benefit to the community.
“We definitely don’t want to kill the goose that laid the golden egg,” warns David Compton, a Lowcountry native and owner of Old South Carriage Company. “Sure, it’s good for my business. Cruise passengers, especially from port-of-call ships, help fill carriages, and we’re glad to have them. A little bit is good, but I just got back from Venice, and it was overrun [by cruises]. Somehow we’ve got to find a balance.” He notes that the city has no problem placing restrictions and ordinances on his business operation. “At the same time, I certainly know the downside to regulation,” he adds, “and I don’t wish that on anyone. Once they start placing limits on your business, they never stop.”
Charleston’s vital tourism engine is not praline shops or hotels or restaurants, or even our waterfront—revitalized or not—but the city’s historic buildings, homes, and gardens, argues Evan Thompson, executive director of the Preservation Society of Charleston. “The fundamental issue is that we must sustain an environment in which people are willing to make enormous private investment in historic homes. That’s what tourists come to see,” Thompson says. If neighborhood quality of life becomes diminished, people won’t spend millions to maintain historic properties, jeopardizing not only Charleston’s main attraction but a revenue stream that feeds directly to a broad range of labor and trades, putting money in local pockets, not in coffers of hotel chains or offshore corporations (Carnival is legally incorporated in Panama.) “We’re a small city on a small scale with international significance,” Thompson adds. “We’re not unlike a rare pristine rainforest; only so many people can trample through without damaging it. The cumulative effect of unregulated mass tourism concerns us.”
Carnival patrons may enjoy all-you-can-eat buffets and all-night entertainment, but local elected officials need to swallow hard and enforce restraints, say many, including City Councilman Mike Seekings, who voted to defer the Mayor’s proposed “ordinance” (August 16, 2011) which “was not an ordinance, it was a memo,” he says. “We need to ask for, forcibly, a reasoned conversation,” Seekings notes. “This is a watershed moment, a social debate about how we deal with development, tourism, and building needs. The ‘Jobs Not Snobs’ retort is so polarizing. This has nothing to do with class, and everything to do with balance. And to dismiss cruise limits as ‘anti-business’ is insanity,” he asserts. “It’s a hugely pro-business stance, because if cruise impacts tip the balance, it will detract from the everyday-tourist base.”
But it’s tricky. The shipping industry falls under the purview of international maritime regulations (including ship-related environmental standards, see sidebar, page 65), and the SPA, with oversight from its governor-appointed board of directors, calls the shots at the port. “The City of Charleston cannot regulate the number of cruises—we don’t legally have the authority,” states Mayor Riley. “Nor do I believe there is a need to. I am as confident as I can possibly be that if the SPA in the future desires to have more than the agreed-upon 104 cruise ships a year, and if at that point the community and City Council say, ‘no more,’ the SPA would honor that. I don’t think there’s a risk at all,” Riley says.
Cruising to Court
That’s wishful thinking at best and being irresponsible at worst, counters Dana Beach of the Coastal Conservation League, which has joined the Preservation Society and two neighborhood associations in filing a lawsuit against Carnival Cruise Lines—a suit that the City of Charleston and the SPA subsequently entered into as co-defendants with Carnival (see sidebar, this page). Legal action, the plaintiffs felt, was their final recourse after making no headway on efforts to negotiate enforceable cruise regulations. “They’ve completely stonewalled us. All models, rules, and lessons of civic dialogue are being broken here,” says Beach. “‘We should trust them,’ the Ports Authority tells us. Well, we trust them to try to cover their revenue shortfall.”
Beach and others are not convinced that a 104-ship limit is realistic given that the cruise industry’s annual growth rate is six to seven percent and that the SPA is investing in new infrastructure and a $35-million passenger terminal that suggests more cruise capacity than that. Plus, “it’s a bad investment of public funds,” says Beach. “We’ve got a state agency using our funds to make a risky bet on a cruise line. No prudent business person would make a $35-million investment without more than a three-year contract, and the SPA’s agreement with Carnival is not even a binding contract,” he notes, pointing out that Carnival has a history of “hit and runs” with communities—most recently in Mobile, Alabama, where city officials were blindsided by Carnival’s abrupt pull-out in October, leaving them with no other cruise clients, 125 lost jobs, and an estimated $22-million debt incurred from building a new cruise terminal.
Whether or not the pending lawsuit has any merit is yet to be determined. Meanwhile, locals and tourists alike drive past the dueling I-26 “Cruise Control” and “Cruise On” billboards, silent echoes of the simmering debate. And the Fantasy continues to slip in and out of Charleston’s harbor, with good folks making their way to Union Pier to hop on board and enjoy a fun getaway. They’re not worrying about regulations, or cost/benefit analyses, or balancing the impacts of tourism on a small, historic seaport town. They’re just trying to decide between sushi or steak for dinner.
Consider the ship names in Carnival’s “Fantasy class”—the Fantasy, Ecstasy, Sensation, Fascination, Imagination, Inspiration, Elation, Paradise—and it’s no wonder the company is so successful. Idealism and escapism have an obvious appeal, but the flip side of fantasy is harsh reality, where the water is often murky, the navigation unclear, and the impacts of choices weigh more heavily than what’s for dinner. Welcome aboard, Charleston. There’s no guarantee of smooth sailing ahead, but there’s too much at stake not to endure some rough waters.
Gray Water, Gray Air, Gray Areas?
The cruise industry’s environmental impact varies according to source. The water is murky, at best, but here’s what we know:
■ The EPA’s Clean Water Act and the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) International Convention for the Prevention and Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) set environmental standards for water/air emissions for cruise ships. The U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) has jurisdiction.
■ In 2000, 53 environmental organizations petitioned the EPA to assist the USCG in “fully enforcing” regulations, citing inconsistencies. Since 9-11, the USCG enforcement capacity has become further taxed.
■ The Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) adopted cruise-specific standards that meet or exceed the federal and international regulations; these are voluntary, i.e. no agency enforcement.
■ The EPA requires gray water, sewage, and ground-up garbage to be discharged further than three miles from land. Cruise ships that embark from Charleston have voluntarily agreed to discharge gray water when the ship is more than 12 miles from shore, according to the SPA.
■ The industry has a history of regulatory noncompliance. One example: in 2002 and 2003, Carnival paid settlement fees of $18 million and $200,000, respectively, for improper oil bilge discharge and ballast water issues. See cruisejunkie.com for additional infractions.
■ Other ports and states, such as Alaska, unsatisfied with CLIA’s “trust us” voluntary regulations, have passed more stringent laws, including mandating in-port use of shore power to reduce air pollution.
■ In March 2010, the IMO adopted new North American Emission Control Area (ECA) standards, effective 2015, which are expected to reduce sulfur and particulate matter emissions by 85 percent.
To the Courts
■ The Plaintiffs: On June 13, 2011, the Historic Ansonborough Neighborhood Association, Charlestowne Neighborhood Association, Preservation Society of Charleston, and the Coastal Conservation League, jointly represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, filed suit in state court against Carnival Corporation. The plaintiffs allege that cruise operations violate local ordinances governing industries and structures in the historic district, and contend Carnival violates environmental permitting laws.
■ The Defendants: The City of Charleston and the South Carolina State Ports Authority (SPA) subsequently intervened as co-defendants with Carnival. Their attorneys have asked that the suit be dismissed, arguing that state law does not allow local government to establish zoning laws that could conflict with the SPA, and that passenger ships have used Union Pier for more than a century, long before zoning laws were adopted.
■ The Status: The motion to dismiss the case in the Ninth Judicial Circuit of the Court of Common Pleas is pending. In addition, attorneys for the defendants have filed a petition for original jurisdiction to the S.C. Supreme Court, hoping to expedite a ruling, claiming that an unresolved lawsuit could threaten jobs and contractual commitments. The court has not yet acted.
Cruising through the Numbers
The State Ports Authority has agreed to a voluntary 104 ships per year limit, with no more than one ship in port at a time. Cruise opponents agree but want these voluntary limits to be enforceable. Here’s the data on recent cruise activity:
2011 Cruise Activity
Ship Embarkations: 68 total by Carnival Fantasy*
Port-of-calls (20 total by 14 ships)
■ Aida Aura & Aida Luna (Aida Cruises)*
■ Arcadia (P&O Cruises)*
■ Columbus (Hapag-Lloyd Cruises)
■ Crown Princess (Princess Cruise Lines)*
■ Crystal Symphony (Crystal Cruises)
■ Navigator (Regent Seven Seas)
■ Oceania Marina (Oceania Cruises)
■ Oceania Regatta (Oceania Cruises)
■ Oriana (P&O Cruises)*
■ Princess Danae (Classic International Cruises)
■ Seaborne Sojourn (Seaborne Cruise Line)*
■ The World (ResidenSea)
■ Veendam (Holland America)*
*Note: cruise lines owned by Carnival Corporation
YEAR NUMBER OF CRUISE SHIPS
2012 84 currently scheduled
SOURCE: Byron Miller, South Carolina State Ports Authority