Saving Historic Places from Unregulated Cruise Tourism: Setting the Record Straight

By william cook posted 02-06-2015 12:51



One of the benefits of the National Treasures program is that it allows preservation advocates to focus and combine their resources to save a nationally significant place. This work involves different types of advocacy, and often includes legal support, media campaigns, public speaking, legislative work, and commissioning or publishing research. The Charleston National Treasure—saving one of the country’s largest historic districts from the harmful effects of unregulated cruise tourism—is a function of all of these efforts. A recently released report, Harboring Tourism: Cruise Ships in Historic Port Communities is helping preservation advocates there—and in other historic cities globally—change the nature of the debate.

Several years ago, when the National Trust launched its National Treasures program, historic Charleston, South Carolina, was one of the first three National Treasures selected, and had earlier been placed on a special “watch status” on the 2011 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. One reason that Charleston was a natural fit for the program, in addition to the obvious harmful visual effects by massive cruise ships on the city’s small historic scale, was that Charleston was being viewed by cruise ship companies as a model for new “niche” markets in other historic port cities. For example, at the time Charleston was being considered as a National Treasure, city officials in Savannah, Georgia,—two hours south of Charleston—appeared receptive to expanded cruise tourism based on the false assumption that “if it’s happening in Charleston and Charleston’s not doing anything about it, then it must be okay.” However, it soon became obvious that unregulated cruise tourism of the type harming Charleston would not be a good fit for Savannah. City leaders changed course. Preservationists, property owners and other stakeholders applauded the change.

Undoubtedly, one of the reasons for Savannah’s change of direction in favor of historic resource protection and against unregulated, out-of-scale cruise ship tourism is that Savannah had the benefit of witnessing Charleston’s experience. But authoritative information about what started happening in Charleston several years earlier—visual blight on the historic skyline, traffic congestion on narrow city streets, economic costs to merchants and property owners, and visible, sooty pollution—was hard to find and largely anecdotal. No bibliography or literature review existed. Apart from reporting in the popular press and on social media channels, such as Facebook’s Don’t Leave Charleston in Your Wake, preservation leaders and attorneys didn’t have much research they could cite. This lack of hard data impeded not only the ability to refute the cruise industry’s one-sided economic arguments, but also legal arguments, one of the main areas of the National Trust’s work.

 View of cruise ship from Market Street in Charleston. | Credit: Don’t Leave Charleston in Your Wake Facebook page
View of cruise ship from Market Street in Charleston. |Credit: Don’t Leave Charleston in Your Wake Facebook page

To help solve this problem, in 2013 the National Trust partnered with the World Monuments Fund (WMF) and the Preservation Society of Charleston to convene the first international symposium on cruise tourism and its effect on historic port cities. In addition to exploring economic issues, such as those explored by the impacts study commissioned by the Historic Charleston Foundation and funded, in part, by the National Trust, the symposium considered how to balance cruise tourism and historic resource protection with environmental concerns, urban policy, and perspectives from the cruise industry.

Thanks to the work of Erica Avrami, former WMF Research and Education director, and the report’s many contributors from around the nation and world, Harboring Tourism builds on the symposium’s  multi-disciplinary discussions and lectures, providing a one-stop-shop for thought leadership on lessons learned and best practices.

As Harboring Tourism notes, “A constant thread throughout the symposium was that positive change requires collective action, and the burden of that collective action falls on local communities. Concerned residents, lawmakers, business owners, and advocates must define a future vision for their community and establish the parameters of change and development.” With this in mind, Harboring Tourism includes recommendations that emerged in regards to negotiating the proper balance between historic preservation and cruise tourism.

Key recommendations include:

  • engage all stakeholders early in the debate over port selection and development;
  • adopt strong conservation management plans for sites that manage visitation;
  • establish a network of organizations to share experience, research, and information about common challenges and best practices;
  • develop minimum requirements for managing cruise tourism;
  • form cooperative alliances for lobbying higher levels of government and industry; and
  • work with NGOs and other international organizations to develop methodologies for minimizing impacts.

Recognizing that historic preservation and economic development are often linked,Harboring Tourism will serve historic port cities well as citizens of those cities wrestle with how to manage cruise tourism in a way that’s balanced, reasonable, and doesn’t harm the historic resources for which these special places are known and valued.

Will Cook is an associate general counsel at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

#NationalTreasure #Charleston #Economics #Sustainability