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The Advocate: Charleston has lost the plot on tourism

By Jay Williams, Jr.

“Imagine if you were giving someone a ride past a historic building and a guest asked you what it was. You might point and say, ‘Oh, that’s Emanual AME Church.’

“Now imagine you were a pedicab driver with two passengers, one of whom asked the same thing and the driver answers the same way.

“What’s the difference? A fine of up to $1,087.

“There’s actually a law in the city of Charleston that allows for this nonsense.”

What you just read is nonsense. That’s the opening of a recent City Paper editorial whining about the ordinance prohibiting pedicab drivers from acting as tour guides; three paragraphs later the writer admits Charleston is a “city that seems to bend over backwards to accommodate tourists ...”

Charleston bends backward, forward and every way imaginable to cater to tourists. At the expense of residents.

Almost from the moment they wake up until they sip their first cocktail, highly taxed, much abused local residents must dodge horse carriages, tour buses, walking tours, rental bikes, pedicabs, motor coaches and eight million seemingly aimless tourists who manage to motor around or amble down our streets completely unaware that cars use the streets too.

By the way, why are the people roaming in the middle of the street invariably looking up?

Now that Disney World went woke, does that mean that we’ll get even more than the eight million annual visitors we’ve already got — all of whom manage to cram into the Old and Historic District, even if it’s just to take a “hit and run” photo and drop their empty ice cream cup in someone’s window box before they trot back to their cruise ship in time for the all-you-can-eat buffet?

We’re still advertising for more, of course. Visitors, guests, tourists, whatever they are. Y’all come, hear? The highly effective Helen Hill, CEO of the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB), has more than $2 million in state accommodations tax money to spend this year. That’s state tax money under state control, so don’t blame the city for that.

The CVB touts they’re only after the right kind of visitors, the historic-heritage types, but it’s just a guess that the almost 4.2 million passengers that passed through the Charleston International Airport in March of 2022 are not all historic-heritage types, not including the other millions who come by car or cruise ship.

What are we doing?

Tourism is the lifeblood of Charleston; it spawns billions in investment dollars and revenue. So how does the city manage these millions of visitors and the vast tourism apparatus that dotes on them? That task falls to Dan Riccio, the city’s dedicated director of the Department of Livability and Tourism. Let’s see how he does it.

Riccio has five tourism management officers (TEO’s) to cover the entire Peninsula, but he hopes to have seven by the end of the month. He also has a tourism manager, three tourism clerks and administrative personnel. I asked, is that enough? “Would I want more? Obviously,” Riccio replies. The most common problems? I ask. Carriages not pulling over for traffic, rogue bus drivers not following approved routes, walking tours blocking the sidewalk, especially those with more than 20 people. There’s a lot to do.

Just the other morning, a Church Street resident was stunned when she opened her front door. Without even knocking, a photographer had erected a tent right in her driveway so her client could change outfits. Su casa es mi casa, apparently.

Riccio’s five or seven TEOs can’t be everywhere. “If a carriage is not pulling over, I’ll snap a picture and send it in,” resident Elizabeth Fort says. “I feel I have a responsibility that if you see something, say something … otherwise nothing happens. Dan [Riccio] will schedule a court date … I’ll come and show the pictures.” She also reported people camping out with their sleeping bags in White Point Garden. Well, with those hotel rates …

Elizabeth and Will Fort, who live on East Bay Street, “ground zero” for tourism, report that a man urinated in their alley recently, “even though there’s a public restroom in the Hazel Parker playground across the street.” He was undoubtedly surveying the historic architecture.

They also reported a bike rental business operating in White Point Garden. “A man repeatedly set up tables with speakers, was serving refreshments and renting bikes to tourists.” He didn’t have a permit.

The focus has to change

“It’s not the fault of anyone who works for the city, but we need to put resources into tourism management, not just talk about it,” said city councilmember Mike Seekings. “Do we have enough TMOs? Clearly not, not even close. There aren’t enough to handle the East Bay Street corridor let alone the entire Peninsula. They’re out there keeping up with seven, eight, nine million people a year …

“We need to completely rethink the way we manage tourism, look at it from the inside out and look at it from a resident’s perspective,” says Seekings.

“We need to start from scratch and rewrite the Tourism Management Plan … figure out what works and what hasn’t worked. We should reconvene the group that originally drafted it on a regular basis,” Seekings suggests. “We should follow best practices but mostly listen to residents. We need to put the rules of the road in place and put together infrastructure to make sure the rules are followed.”

That would please Elizabeth Fort immensely. “When I pushed my way through a walking tour group all blocking the sidewalk on Broad Street, the guide raised his hands in frustration.” The real frustration is that walking tours block the sidewalks. But they do. That rule of the road is in place; there’s simply not enough enforcement.

The Tourism Management Plan

For a city built on tourism, Charleston’s priorities are out of whack. Last week, city council considered a proposal to give the Food and Wine Festival $150,000 — that’s after it moved to North Charleston. Thanks to Seekings and others it was defeated, but where are the city’s priorities?

The Tourism Management Plan was written in 2015 — well before Short Term Rentals were conceived. That core group was supposed to reconvene annually. Why hasn’t that happened?

Five or six years ago, the city funded a stellar parking, mobility and tourism study that advocated parking most cars at the perimeter of the Peninsula rather than having them crowd into downtown as they do today. What happened to that plan? We still have hundreds of cars going to and from Union Pier just so their owners can cruise off to some island and spend their money elsewhere. Ridiculous — the cruise terminal has to be moved.

That $150,000. We’d better spend it, and a lot more, on planning and managing tourism. It’s getting late.

About those pedicabs. Drivers can point to and describe any building they pass. But pedicabs are licensed to take passengers from point A to point B as a means of transportation; they’re not allowed to give tours. Thus, they’re not permitted to go off their route to zigzag around and through the narrow streets of the historic district to inflict more damage on what remains of our livability. If they do, take a video and turn them in.

Thank goodness for one small favor.

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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