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Charleston cruises toward an uncertain destiny

Lee Walton

Sorry folks, but for once in a blue moon, I’m with Dana Beach and Hank Holliday on this one. Only the benefit of at least a decade of hindsight will provide reliable answer to the question asked in Sunday’s Palter and Chatter feature front page article, “Are cruises a boon for local economy?” For lack of a crystal ball, no one in the Holy City can reasonably predict the outcome and impact of a greatly increased cruise ship tourist presence upon the peninsula’s livability and business environment. There are just too many variables and currently unregulated aspects of Charleston’s fledgling leap into the high-stakes cruise ship gamble to predict, with any degree of certainty, the net long-term benefits to our local economy or the adverse impacts upon our quality of life. Given the nature of the paradigm shift in the peninsula’s tourism marketing required for the transition to a cruise ship dominated hospitality industry, the stakes are just too high to rush headlong and “bet the farm” on such an unregulated one-way only, no U-turn commitment.

Both sides of the current argument are caught up in a debate where everyone’s talking, but no one’s listening. Proponents are stressing the gross economic benefits with impressive, if not self-serving, statistics and predictions. Likewise, opponents are claiming numerous negative impacts and at least a few half-truths to bolster their dire warnings of irreparable harm. Neither side seems willing to concede the one commodity most needed to reach an acceptable consensus – time to objectively consider the consequences.

The political stakes couldn’t be higher either. With the loss of Saks at Market and King’s “Majestic Square”, the closure of dozens of shops on King, the loss of as many restaurants throughout the city, the apparent demise of the CSO and plummeting real-estate values, there is good reason to believe that Charleston may have reached and receded from its high watermark as an upscale, relatively sophisticated tourist destination. Predictably, given the reality of the lingering recession, high local unemployment and shrinking city tax and fee revenues, Mayor J. Pericles Riley also seems desperately willing to snatch at any glimmer of hope within reach as a economical life-ring to keep his financial juggling act afloat.

As the owner of three downtown hotels, four restaurants, an eyewitness observer of the cruise ship industry in Key West for twenty-five years and, arguably, the most heavily invested entrepreneur in the Market Area, Hank Holliday’s extensive experience based comments about Charleston’s lack of adequate regulatory control can not ignored. Once displaced by “Anywhere USA” mediocrity, the peninsula’s culture seeking tourist will be only an irretrievable memory. Holliday’s valid concerns should be given the timely consideration they deserve.

Likewise, both Randy Pelzer and Hank Holliday have very valid concerns regarding the relative quality of tourist attracted to Charleston by the cruise ship industry. Both fear the displacement of Charleston’s traditional “upscale tourist trade” by “the wrong type of tourists”, leading to the “dumbing down of tourism” and loss of what “Charleston worked for decades to cultivate.” There’s little, if any question about the differences in the degree of sophistication and relative spending habits of Charleston’s typical higher-end tourist and that of the typical Myrtle Beach tourist; it’s been an open joke between the two neighboring tourist destinations for years.

Why then the indignation and bristling by SPA’s CEO, Jim Newsome, toward those who, in his words, not theirs “…paint cruise ship passengers as T-shirt-buying, fanny-pack-wearing undesirables – in short, a lower class of tourist.” His financial objectives are a far cry from the altruistic motivations of many concerned Charlestonians who he unjustly ridicules. As with many of his predecessors, the odds are, he’ll be long gone from the Lowcountry before any irreversible damage is evident form his self-serving actions.

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