In Charleston, S.C., Resistance To Cruise Ships

fromWFAE

The cruise industry has set up shop in Charleston, S.C., but not everyone is thrilled. Preservationists say the industry will tarnish the city's image as a cultural and historic destination.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Charleston, South Carolina, is being invaded. At least, that's what some people think about a new presence in town: the cruise industry and a big, new boat brings a lot of new tourists. From member station WFAE, Scott Graf tells us more.

SCOTT GRAF, BYLINE: Historic preservation has long been a priority in Charleston, and it shows. Tall church steeples are the only skyscrapers here. At street level, blossoming gardens separate classic mansions and pastel-painted townhomes. Horse-drawn carriages are all over. They're not carrying well-to-do landowners or statesmen as they might have a couple of centuries ago. Instead, tourists ride along for what amounts to a $20 history lesson.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: So what they would do is they'd take the rice in a circular shell, grass basket, take them around. The husk and the rice would naturally separate, called waning process. Whoa.

RAZ: Charleston's efforts to save its past are serving it well today. Readers of Conde Nast traveler magazine just named it best North American city for tourists. The magazine also ranks it the third best city in the entire world. Evan Thompson is with Charleston's preservation society.

EVAN THOMPSON: We've got something very, very good here in Charleston. We're getting the world renowned attention for what we have, but we threaten that when we throw mass tourism to an unregulated form into the mix.

GRAF: Thompson is worried about the cruise industry. Last year, Carnival Cruise Lines started basing a ship in the heart of Charleston. Just a few blocks from where the massive Carnival ship Fantasy is docked, cruise passengers pull suitcases along Charleston's downtown streets. Thousands of cruise passengers make this walk every week. Some residents, though, are concerned about all that traffic. They say too much of it will detract from what makes Charleston, Charleston. Blan Holman is with the Southern Environmental Law Center. He helped file a lawsuit against Carnival over the summer, and he wants local government to limit how many ships can dock here.

BLAN HOLMAN: Yeah, it is true that this has been a port town since 1670, but those were three-masted ships, and that kind of thing is a lot different when you have thousands of people getting on and off the vessel.

GRAF: Local leaders, though, say the cruise industry represents international commerce, and they don't have jurisdiction. Besides, says state ports authority spokesman Byron Miller, the idea that Charleston is being overrun with cruise passengers is wrong.

BYRON MILLER: 4.5 million people a year visit Charleston. Only 175,000 of them arrive or sail on a cruise ship.

GRAF: Miller thinks those suing Carnival are trying to make the company mad so it leaves. Carnival declined comment for this story. And the issue has taken on a class dynamic. Those fighting for limits, Miller says, are well-to-do minority.

MILLER: We've heard over and over again that these are not the right kind of tourists, or that they're balloon hat-wearing heavy drinkers, or that they're flip-flop-wearing fanny packers.

GRAF: Attorney Blan Holman says his lawsuit is not about keeping a certain type of tourist out. He thinks the class argument is just a made-up distraction. But national historic groups are watching. This year, two labeled Charleston as an endangered historic city because of the cruise industry threat. Again, Evan Thompson with the city's preservation society.

THOMPSON: I think that Charleston will - is at a tipping point right now where cruise tourism, if it is allowed to grow in an unchecked way, can damage Charleston for the long term.

GRAF: City leaders say Charleston has done a good job managing tourism for decades and will continue to do so. But the next round in this fight won't be decided in Charleston. The South Carolina Supreme Court in Columbia has been asked to weigh in. For NPR News, I'm Scott Graf.

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