The Advocate 

By Jay Williams

We love tourists. Tourists provide jobs and economic opportunity, they allow us to showcase our city and their presence means that we can enjoy some of the best restaurants, theatre, music and events in the world while still living in a relatively small, accessible city.

Traditional tourists spend about $900 per adult per trip. Most are over 50, married and college educated according to a 2014 Visitor Intercept Survey. They enjoy Charleston’s history and restaurants so much that more than half are returning visitors.

But the questions must be asked. How many tourists are too many? How many hotels can our peninsula sustain? Can we control this ever-rising tide of tourism before it overwhelms us?

We must consider that in the last 20 years, tourism has increased more than 70 percent — and was up five percent just last year! More than 5,000,000 annual visitors come to Charleston and most of them come downtown. “The Tri-County benefits, but downtown bears the burden” of tourism, says Bing Pan, Head of Research at the Office of Tourism Analysis at the College of Charleston’s School of Business. In other words, those carriages aren’t taking the tourists to the Citadel Mall.

“Recognizing that the equilibrium between residential life and tourism activity was threatened,” Mayor Joseph Riley formed the Tourism Management Advisory Committee in 2014. Comprised of residents, business owners, representatives of the tourism industry and others and is led by Katharine S. Robinson, president of Historic Charleston Foundation, the Committee studied tourism issues for a full year.

The Tourism Committee found that, “In addition to the congestion created by touring vehicles such as motor coaches and carriages, that the docking of cruise ships and the proliferation of special events have posed new challenges. Also, each year the city receives a growing number of applications for new hotels, restaurants, bars and tourism-related businesses.”

 It addressed these problems with specific strategies in a new Tourism Management Plan that was promptly adopted by city council.

The overarching recommendations

The committee made 55 specific recommendations to manage growth throughout five principal areas, highlighting three recommendations seen as critical for successful tourism management:

  • Develop a centralized, coordinated approach to tourism management and special events.
  • Conduct a comprehensive traffic and parking study
  • Conduct an annual review of tourism management

That plan was released a year ago with each strategy accompanied by a “completion” date. So how we doing?

There’s good news. Dan Riccio, the city’s recently named director of livability and tourism, has made progress devising plans for better routing of carriages, adding extra zones to ease the congestion, keeping walking tours from blocking sidewalks, developing an app for motor coaches so drivers will stay on their assigned routes and using his department’s six enforcement officers to advise vendors on new rules and address infractions.

“The mission in the first year,” says Tourism Committee member Steve Gates who praises Riccio’s leadership and his department, “is not to give out tickets, but to correct people and change their behavior.”

That’s never easy, as entrepreneurial flames spontaneously combust. Last month Mr. Riccio’s department had to extinguish an upstart downtown golf cart rental company--perhaps the only tourist conveyance that is illegal to rent.

“Unfortunately,” says Gates, “over 40 recommendations don’t fall within Dan Riccio’s department, so we need to light a fire under somebody.”

Charleston’s “Big Three” concerns

teve Gates believes that those last 40 recommendations cover the “big three” of tourism and livability issues: hotel proliferation, cruise ship impacts and lack of a comprehensive traffic and parking study.

Hotel proliferation

One strategy to manage congestion is to “address recent, substantial hotel room increases.” Refusing to support a moratorium, the city council did fund a 90-day study of hotel development.

In 2014, Bing Pan’s College of Charleston team compared hotels here with other cities and found Charleston’s “hotel and hotel room density is at the lower end of the range.” Pan believes that “hotel room prices are going down, occupancy is going down,” and that market forces will begin to slow new hotel construction.

That study’s geography included areas extending beyond downtown up to Magnolia Cemetery, however, causing Tourism Committee member Steve Gates to counter that “the proliferation of hotels” is “overwhelming the ‘accommodation zone’ in the heart of downtown “which has no limits on the number of hotels.” And that the mission of the Convention and Visitors Bureau is to “put heads in beds.” Gates also voices concern that the growing collection of “50 room hotels” comes at the expense of building “new housing and new affordable housing.”

These two differing viewpoints from highly knowledgeable observers begs the question: Is a 90-day study adequate to find the balance between hotel development and livability?

Cruise ships

The single Tourism Management Plan recommendation that city council did not approve was to “study alternative locations for a cruise terminal.” That’s unfortunate. However the city was authorized to “strengthen the [voluntary] agreement” that limits the size and number of cruise ships calling on Charleston. “Strengthen means giving it some teeth,” Gates says, but there’s no evidence that any strengthening has occurred.

Other recommendations include studying remote parking sites to keep 500 cars from invading downtown every time The Ecstasy docks, continue the dialog on shore power and consider passenger fees to offset the costs of managing cruise passengers in the city.

Only three years ago, the S.C. Ports Authority (SPA) assured us that its “voluntary maximum limits” of 3,500 passenger ships, 104 ships a year and only one in port at a time would be fine. But the Post and Courier reported last week that although there were 96 port calls in 2015, the SPA has scheduled 103 port calls for this year. That’s a mere ship short of that voluntary limit.

Here’s a fact courtesy of the SPA: From 2000 to 2013, Charleston cruise ship passengers increased by 547 percent. So what if the excitement about visiting Cuba creates a demand for cruise ships leaving from Charleston?

A comprehensive traffic - parking study

Applicants for large new commercial buildings must do a traffic study. However, each study simply needs to address the traffic that proposed project would create. What about the traffic that already exists, or the traffic that will be created by other new buildings already approved? Doesn’t matter. Now you see the problem.

Urban consultant Gabe Klein issued a report in late 2014 that said our streets are narrow, there’s a tension between residents and a growing number of tourists and that mobility options haven’t kept pace. His suggestion that we try “inexpensive pilot programs” to alleviate congestion resulted in the bike lane experiment over the Ashley River Bridge.

But you can’t make comprehensive plans without data. How’s that “comprehensive peninsula parking/mobility study” recommendation coming along?

Make the recommendations reality

We can still balance the influx of tourism with our residential life and the Tourism Management Committee has done the research to give us a solid start. These recommendations are approved. Now let’s enact them.

The Tourism Committee will meet again on June 22. Let’s have a one-year update and a plan forward on every recommendation.

Charleston can’t let another Tourism Management Plan sit on the shelf. We won’t get another chance to stem the tide.

Jay Williams, Jr. arrived in Charleston in 2001 to escape the cold and relax in the warmth of a better culture and climate. This all worked well until May, 2011 when he attended a cruise terminal discussion at Physicians Hall.

 

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