Cruise boats stir passions in Charleston

Rising like a multi-story hotel at the end of historic Market Street, a large cruise ship floated in Charleston Harbor last month as passengers streamed into town for a Caribbean voyage.

Cruise ships aren’t hard to find these days in Charleston, where the pleasure boat industry is expanding.

But it’s not a presence everyone is comfortable with. Critics say too many cruise ships will overwhelm Charleston with traffic and air pollution, while ruining the character of a city that thrives on its past.

By the end of this year, the number of cruise ships in Charleston will have more than doubled over the previous year, increasing to nearly 70 vessels. And in the future, more than 100 ships could be using Charleston annually, according to the State Ports Authority.

At some point, Charleston needs a firm limit on the number of cruise ships to make sure the city doesn’t suffer, say a collection of historic preservationists, prominent business people and environmentalists. They are pushing for a written agreement that includes capping the number of annual voyages.

“I find it offending to drive across the Ravenel Bridge and see the cruise ships there; they just don’t fit our skyline,” said Mount Pleasant’s Pat Sullivan, who is active in the local historic preservation effort. “If you walk down Market Street, where the cruise ships show up, that’s really an eyesore.”

Those worried about the impact of big cruise ships include the Preservation Society of Charleston, the S.C. Coastal Conservation League and downtown business people such as Randall Goldman. Goldman, managing partner for several historic properties and the popular restaurant Fish, said he has no problem with cruise ships — if they are limited and properly regulated.

“The explosion in growth of the cruise industry is really quite impressive, but I’m concerned about how big is this going to be,” he said.

Cruise ship questions have sparked an increasingly hostile disagreement between the State Ports Authority and the Coastal Conservation League, longtime foes and among the city’s most visible organizations.

League officials say a written agreement is the best way to ensure that the number of cruise ships is manageable, while also protecting the air from smoky exhausts and the ocean from sewage dumping. State and federal laws aren’t strong enough to protect the environment from cruise ships, environmentalists say.

But they say the Ports Authority won’t put in writing commitments to protect the environment and limit cruise ships, according to league director Dana Beach.

Officials with the State Ports Authority say Charlestonians have no reason to worry about cruise ships.

Cruise ships are not dumping sewage in Charleston Harbor, and they will clean up their exhausts as a result of a new international agreement backed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Ports Authority spokesman Byron Miller said. The authority also estimates no more than 104 cruise ships will ever dock in Charleston in a year.

The Ports Authority has also made improvements to better control traffic congestion, officials say. And the authority is working on a plan to move the existing cruise terminal north of Market Street, farther up the historic peninsula.

Miller said most merchants are glad cruise ships are in Charleston, which helps the tourism business.

But Beach questioned why the Ports Authority won’t put in writing any of the plans to control pollution and limit ships in Charleston. Otherwise, there are no guarantees, he said. He also noted that cruise ships generate revenue for the Ports Authority.

Money and jobs

On the days when cruise ships depart the waterfront near East Bay Street, downtown Charleston sees more than the usual number of cars and pedestrians as thousands of passengers flood the peninsula.

Police help direct traffic to the port terminal near the end of Market Street, while both passengers and ship workers hustle to get aboard. Some streets are closed off to help the vehicle traffic flow. The cruise ship area lies just down the street from some of Charleston’s most well-known sites, including the old Market, and several blocks from the Colonial-era homes that give the city its charm.

Last month, from the outdoor deck at the popular Fleet Landing restaurant, Judd McClain waved to his father and his grandmother as the Carnival ship Fantasy prepared to take them on a cruise.

On-shore diners nearby usually have an extensive panorama of the water, but on this day the Carnival ship dominated the view. The Fantasy has 10 decks and 1,028 rooms, with a capacity to carry 2,056 people.

Despite the size, McClain said, he’s glad the ship was in town. It made a cruise possible for his 91-year-old grandmother, who lives in nearby Mount Pleasant.

“Just to be able to do that right out of where she lives, and not have to travel somewhere else to get on a cruise ship, was pretty big,” McClain said.

Cruise ship supporters say it’s hard to believe anyone would oppose passenger liners in Charleston. All the activity generates plenty of revenue in a city that already thrives on tourism, they say.

“The cruise ship business has a positive contribution to the local economy, and beyond the economic contribution, it has a vital tourism element,” the SPA’s Miller said. “It introduces a lot of people to South Carolina. We’ve found that … 40 percent of the people who take a cruise out of Charleston have never been to Charleston before.”

A 2010 study for the Ports Authority says cruise ships are expected to have a $37 million impact on Charleston’s economy this year. That will generate 407 jobs in transportation, food and beverage, wholesale and retail businesses — and those jobs will pay nearly $40,000 on average each year, according to the study by two College of Charleston professors.

The study also said passengers leaving and arriving in Charleston will spend more than $2.2 million staying at local hotels and eating and drinking in Charleston restaurants or night spots. Cruise boat passengers will spend and additional $2 million shopping in town, the study said.

Some Charleston business people are encouraged cruise ships have found the city.

“I don’t have problems with as many as want to come through,” said Bradford Rickenbaker, a jeweler who is president of the King Street Merchants Association.

King Street is one of the city’s main shopping and leisure districts, a corridor of high-end boutiques, antique shops, restaurants, jewelry stores and other businesses.

“Anything that’s going to bring exposure to the city is going to be good for us,” Rickenbaker continued. “We’re hoping people come to town, and if they spend the night, they’ll say, ‘This is a pretty cool little city; let’s come back and spend some time.’”

Mayor Joe Riley said he doesn’t believe the cruise industry will become too large. He has assurances from the Ports Authority that no more than 104 ships will use Charleston per year, or about two a week. He also noted that the new cruise terminal to be built north of King Street will have only one berth for cruise ships in Charleston. Thus, the industry can’t become too big, he said.

“We think that is the right scale in terms of numbers,” Riley said. “That number of ships a year would be about 200,000 people. This will never be a big cruise destination like other places. It will just be one component of our tourism industry and one that is in scale.”

Pollution and traffic jams

The Preservation Society of Charleston, the Conservation League and some business people aren’t so sure.

Without some kind of regulation or written agreement, they fear the Ports Authority will allow cruise ships to leave Charleston every day of the year, rather than once or twice per week.

Evan Thompson, who heads the preservation society, said his group has signed a document expressing concern about the number of cruise ships coming to town. His group wants to make sure the historic character of Charleston is maintained.

“Heritage tourism and tourism in general is a huge economic engine in Charleston,” he said, but he added that “these ships are massive. When they are docked, there is no view of the water for anybody for the entire length.”

Pollution from cruise ships is the biggest concern for the Conservation League.

Since 1998, cruise lines have been fined $55 million by environmental authorities for breaking environmental laws, according to a December 2009 report from the environmental group Friends of the Earth.

The impact’s of cruise ship pollution can be significant A moderate sized cruise ship with 3,000 passengers and crew produces enough sewage in a week to fill 10 backyard swimming pools, the group’s report said.

The SPA’s Miller and cruise industry officials say great strides have been made to limit air and water discharges from big pleasure boats.

New controls on air pollution from ships will be phased in over the next five years under a recent international agreement. That is supposed to limit soot and other pollutants that worsen air quality in ports and make breathing difficult.

At the same time, some of the world’s biggest cruise lines have pledged to clean up, such as with cleaner-burning engines on some pleasure ships.

Nonetheless, the league says the environment would be better protected if the Ports Authority would agree to certain pollution controls, such as requiring that ships not burn what’s called bunker fuel all day as they idle in port. The league wants the authority to install “plug-ins,” or places where cruise ships can get electrical power from the docks rather than having to burn bunker fuel.

On May 18, Beach stood on the porch of his downtown Charleston office and watched as black smoke belched from a stack atop a cruise ship nearby. Then he ran his index finger along the window sill of the antebellum home the league uses as its headquarters.

“See that? We have to power wash this house about once every two months, and this is what comes off it — it’s soot,” Beach said.

Beach’s group says there’s no reason Charleston can’t reach some agreement on how many cruise ships should come here — and limits on pollution, he said. Controls have been put in place in Alaska, Oregon and Washington State.

“Our point is, ‘Let’s impose a state-of-the-art standard on the cruise ships for pollution control,’” Beach said.

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