Inaugural visit of the Carnival Sunshine, Charleston, 2016
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Steeples not Smokestacks

Inaugural visit of the Carnival Sunshine, Charleston, 2016

The oldest city in South Carolina, Charleston is widely known for its well-preserved historic urban fabric. Attracting over 4 million visitors a year, the city reflects growing appeal as a cruise destination: according to the 2015 tourism management plan, published by the College of Charleston, the city experienced a 547% increase in the number of cruise ship passengers between 2000 and 2013. Current concerns in Charleston echo the challenges faced in other historic port cities with cruise ship tourism, such as Venice.

Carnival Cruise lines recently upped the ante in Charleston by basing Sunshine—a ship that holds 3,062 passengers—in the historic city. Sunshine joins the slightly smaller Carnival ship Ecstasy, which is already home-ported in Charleston, setting the stage for additional homebased superliners to come.

Meanwhile, a proposal by the State Ports Authority (SPA), in discussion since 2010, would create a new cruise terminal in the historic district with even more capacity at a reported cost of $35 million. The Army Corps of Engineers is the federal agency responsible for reviewing the SPA proposal.  

In welcoming Carnival’s expansion and considering the new terminal, the leadership of Charleston has clearly not learned the sad lesson of Venice, where hordes of tourists streaming off as many as seven cruise ships at a time can double the population of that city for the brief period they are in port, severely taxing the fragile infrastructure and ruining the experience of being in the city, for both visitors and the local citizens. To date, Charleston’s leadership has refused to explore options for relocating the cruise ship terminal away from the city’s historic district, as requested by local, national, and international preservation groups, thus opening the way to accommodate not only more but larger ships in future. 

Following the Preservation Society of Charleston’s nomination of Charleston to the 2012 Watch, WMF held an international symposium on the subject of cruise ship tourism in historic port communities. The symposium, entitled Harboring Tourism, took place in Charleston in February 2013. WMF subsequently published a summary of the proceedings.

In 2013, 72% of respondents to a poll by Charleston Magazine indicated that they were concerned about the congestion and pollution caused by what was, at the time, the one homeported cruise ship in the city. What will be the case with the stacks of two behemoths—maybe more—overshadowing the signature steeples of the historic Charleston skyline? 

For more information, please refer to Charleston Communities for Cruise Control.