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Tourism: Let’s create a ‘new normal’

The Advocate

They’re back! Those New York, New Jersey, North Carolina license plates are everywhere and so are the people that go with them. And Massachusetts, Rhode Island …

The odiferous horse-drawn carriages, sidewalk-consuming walking tours and Palmetto Bug-like pedicabs are back, too. I learned about the last firsthand when a yellow one almost crushed me as I ambled down King Street.

To clear things up, I don’t dislike people from other states — I’m one of them — and I appreciate the many benefits that tourism has helped bring to Charleston, including fine restaurants, a plethora of shops and stores, Spoleto, SEWE and their money.

Let’s go farther. According to the United States Travel Association, domestic and international travelers spent $1.1 trillion in the U.S. last year, which supported nine million jobs and $180 billion in tax revenue. To drill down even more, this pause in tourism is projected to cost Charleston some $21 million in tax revenue.

But whatever the “new normal” for tourism in Charleston turns out to be, we can’t go back to the old “normal.” The College of Charleston’s Office of Tourism Analysis informs us that that old “normal” was 7.3 million tourists in 2018 and probably 8 million tourists in 2019 with virtually all of them coming down to our geographically constrained peninsula of only 35,000 residents.

Those carriages aren’t taking tourists out to the Citadel Mall.

The coronavirus respite

For residents, the abrupt standstill in tourism was the silver lining of the coronavirus pandemic. One downtown resident, very active in the community, described this pause in tourism as, “delightful. Residents have been spoiled by the simple pleasures of walking at a normal pace on sidewalks without dodging rental bikes and four-abreast tourists, hearing birds and frogs without the din of traffic and tour guide blather, smelling tea olives and ligustrum instead of equine droppings and being able to ride a bike with relative safety.” Enjoy it while you can.

Last year, Allan Anderson, a former downtown resident, moved to Mt. Pleasant for one-floor living, to escape flooding and what he describes as, “a tipping point in tourism” over the last three years. “We used to enjoy it when a couple or a family would look through the wrought iron gate into our walled garden. Then it became groups of 10, then 20 and 25. We finally began closing the shutters behind the gate to get some privacy, but then people began to climb the gate to look over the shutters.”

We can’t go back to that.

This coronavirus tourism “pause” is a golden opportunity to hit the reset button. Let’s have a serious discussion about what will happen if we do nothing, or how Charleston could be more attractive for residents and visitors alike if we take some reasonable, responsible action.

No, I’m not advocating for the “good old days,” whatever they might have been, but for a balance between welcoming our visitors and prostrating our city to the altar of tourism. Charleston’s economy has become too dependent on tourism and the resulting hotels, beauty hustlers and tacky T-shirt shops have eroded the rich Southern character of downtown. Also, fully one-third of the recent job losses in the U.S. are connected to the travel industry; and for Charleston, with tourist-oriented restaurants, retail and Boeing, that loss is greater. This won’t be the last downturn and it won’t end without even more economic damage. Let’s change the revenue mix.

What should we do now?

The 2015 Tourism Management Plan is a great place to begin. A hand-selected committee representing diverse interests including tourism, neighborhoods and government, developed specific recommendations to, “maintain the critical and delicate balance between Charleston’s residential quality of life and the tourism economy while preserving Charleston’s authenticity and sense of place, especially its architectural and cultural heritage.”

With so many out of work, so many businesses suffering, “It’s a hard conversation to have now,” said Kristopher King, executive director of the Preservation Society and a member of the Tourism Management Plan committee. “But this downturn underscores the need to look at this issue. We’ve been given a rare opportunity to rethink the way to handle tourism, growth and development. How do we build more sustainable industries and a more livable city for residents? How do we make it more sustainable and resilient so we can prosper in good times and bad? A lot of people are not prospering, many cannot find affordable housing downtown and because of exacerbating traffic problems, others find it hard to get to work. Let’s take stock and ask what we need to do to take a different trajectory.”

Absent new thinking, there will be more traffic. Fewer people will fly and more tourists will drive here, but what will they do with their cars when they arrive? Pre-virus, King noted that, “A lot of locals didn’t want to come downtown because of the cost of going out to dinner, parking and traffic.” King suggests that instead of “giving the city over to people who spend two days here,” we could rebalance. For example, tourists could pay $4-an-hour to park on the street while Charleston residents pay $1. This could be one way tourists could help pay the increasing needs of the community like flooding and road infrastructure.

New thinking should also influence the way the Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau funds are spent. According to Amy Wharton, Charleston’s chief financial officer, the state dictates that some 30 percent of the city’s accommodations tax revenue goes to an organization like the CVB that can only be used to attract people beyond a 50-mile radius to come to Charleston. In this virus-laden world, many local and nearby residents would “staycation” here if encouraged. Let’s get that state rule changed so we can spend some of the money here and we can become our own tourists.

How about the window-rattling roar? Hordes of Harleys and sport bikes were rolling and revving down King and up East Bay, but resident complaints prove what enforcement can accomplish. Following those complaints, Dan Riccio, the city’s director of the Department of Livability and Tourism, helped erect a mobile sign on Broad Street displaying the $1087.00 fine for revving. That combined with visible police presence put a welcome damper on the racket. Continued vigilance is required.

GPS trackers have been placed on all carriages to alert Riccio’s department instantly to clumping and dumping. Let’s expand that GPS technology to other tourist businesses to enable the city to identify quickly the five percent of inconsiderate guides who block the sidewalks with their walking tours or spot the pedicabs conducting illegal tours South of Broad. Technology and resident engagement can help improve the visitor experience and the livability for residents.

We love our incredible city. Its history, art and architecture, its small scale and an abundance of other attributes are best appreciated at a slightly slower pace. Others love Charleston, too; almost half of our tourists are repeat visitors. But our city is as threatened by over-tourism as much as it is from flooding. There’s a sense that tourism has become the cash register for the city — that it’s become an addiction. This pandemic pause in tourism is our withdrawal. Let’s take this opportunity to reset the tourism-livability balance creatively and establish a new normal that’s right for Charleston. We’ll never get this chance again.

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 of 2011 when he attended a cruise terminal discussion at Physicians Hall.

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