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The Places We Love I: Charleston at Odds

This is the first in a series of occasional blogs about the ever-changing quality of travel destinations around the world—about what’s going on behind the scenes and how it affects the character of the places we care about. The “best mayor in America” was furious with a lot of people, evidently including me. Mayor Joe...

This is the first in a series of occasional blogs about the ever-changing quality of travel destinations around the world—about what’s going on behind the scenes and how it affects the character of the places we care about.

The “best mayor in America” was furious with a lot of people, evidently including me. Mayor Joe Riley’s frustration was spraying in all directions, and some of us sharing the on-stage panel with him were getting bits of flack. He had his reasons.

The occasion on May 9, 2011, was a civic forum in a packed auditorium, latest event in a months-old, increasingly heated debate. At issue is a well-liked urban renewal plan with one colossal sticking point: a new cruise ship pier, right next to old-town Charleston. According to some points of view, the fate of one of the country’s finest historic cities is now at stake.  The Historic Charleston Foundation, sponsor of the event, had asked me to join the seven-person panel to comment on destination stewardship. (Disclosure: They paid an honorarium and covered my travel.) I discovered the furor over the pier had almost eclipsed the reason why the matter came up in the first place.

So walk with me east through the shady streets of Charleston’s historic Ansonborough neighborhood, lined by bright, tastefully painted “single houses” set sideways to the street, all clapboard, shutters, and louvered porches, and it’s easy to see why this city is considered one of the country’s finest historic gems. After we cross East Bay Street, though, it all stops, sudden and ugly, at a blank wall of gray warehouses. It’s an aesthetic insult to everything Charleston represents. We’ve reached Union Pier, a decades-old eyesore with its back turned to the city, blocking the views out over the Cooper River arm of Charleston harbor. The pier and its 74 acres of prime real estate belong to the South Carolina State Ports Authority.

Porches that channel breezes and provide shade define Charleston architecture, a heritage fiercely protected by an alert citizenry. (Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot)


In a way, the architectural rebuff could symbolize the attitude of many port authorities, typically run by appointed, not elected, boards. According to John Norquist, fellow forum panelist and former mayor of Milwaukee, port authorities have a tendency to arrogance when dealing with the cities they occupy.

So Mayor Riley was justifiably proud when he and Port Authority director James Newsome agreed on a “concept plan” that would reincorporate the southern portion of Union Pier into the fabric of the city. Streets would open up all the way to views of the water. New, architecturally suitable buildings would fill reclaimed blocks. A public landing for small craft would connect at the foot of Market Street much as things were a hundred years ago. That part sounded great!

Riley’s successes in helping Charleston balance its tourism popularity with livability and economic growth has earned him frequent local accolades as “the best mayor in America.” Perhaps so: He’s running for his tenth term. Fixing Union Pier would one more brick in his tower of achievement.

But now there’s the cruise-ship issue. Based at the south end of Union Pier, the 2,056-passenger Carnival Fantasy has already been using Charleston as a home port since 2009, annoying nearby locals with traffic tie-ups on embarkation days. Other cruise ships stop at Charleston, too, usually sending passengers ashore for a few hours before sailing on. The trend is up. Under the redevelopment plan, the cruise ship pier would move to the north end, which most folks concede would be an improvement on the current situation.

Cruise ship docked at the existing Union Pier terminal, Charleston, SC, ready to load 2,000 passengers. (Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot)


But many think it would be even more of an improvement to if the towering ships and their accompanying crowds and traffic moved away from the historic district entirely, farther up the peninsula to another port facility at Columbus Street. That portion of passengers actually interested in Charleston could ride a shuttle into town. “Not on the table,” insists Newsome. The Port Authority wants that entire terminal reserved for cargo.

At the forum I reported how Charleston ranked on two National Geographic surveys on destination stewardship, scoring very well, with a 71 in 2004 and 77 in 2009. The surveys, published in National Geographic Traveler, have been polls of expert opinions whereby 200-400 survey panelists consider several factors—environment, culture and social integrity, historic preservation, aesthetics, tourism management—and rate places accordingly. Both times, Charleston came in among the very best in the United States. On the 2004 survey, by contrast, Key West came in with a bottom-hugging 43, largely due to the unbridled increase in cruise ship visitation. In such towns, floods of passengers create a mini-tsunami of humanity that pleases some shopkeepers but can annoy local residents and stay-over visitors who have come to enjoy the place for its own sake. Some Charlestonians have raised the specter of Key West as a reason to go slow on cruise ships.

A rule of thumb in tourism is that an overnight visitor contributes at least four times more to the economy than a day-tripper, sometimes much more. A Port-sponsored study touting the benefits of cruise ships found that many cruise passengers claimed they would return to see Charleston, but it didn’t determine how many actually do so.

Historic Interpretation in Oldtown Charleston, SC
City visitors listen to tales of old Charleston from a costumed interpreter and his feathered aide.


Although the historic Charleston peninsula and historic Key West are comparable in size, Riley dismissed the Key West comparison as “ridiculous,” noting that cruise passengers were a small fraction of Charleston’s yearly tourism flow. Riley also rejected a study showing the enhanced value of converting the entire 74 acres to housing and shops. “This is a city!” he exclaimed “not a boutique.” Charleston, he said, needs a lively working waterfront. Many agree with him there, including me. But does the waterfront handle cargo and seafood, or floating cities of vacationers?

Currently, the Port Authority gets only 7 percent of its revenue from cruise ships. Newsome has proposed voluntary limits: no ship bigger than 3500 passengers, no more than 104 ships per year, no more than one ship at a time. Not too bad. But he refuses to lock it in formally, saying to do so would hurt the port’s credibility with its customers and lenders.

The proposed cruise ship pier seems long enough, 1,800 feet, to handle two ships. Even the voluntary limit allows ships 75 percent bigger than the 10-deck Fantasy.

Shortly before the night of our forum, someone contacted the National Trust for Historic Preservation, proposing that the Trust put Charleston on its annual “11 Most Endangered” list. The Trust is considering doing so. For Riley, whose career was built in part on protecting Charleston’s historic sense of place, the threat was infuriating, like putting Giorgio Armani on the “Worst Dressed” list. The Trust will release its 2011 list June 15.

The issue revolves around numbers. If hundreds of tourists flood iconic city blocks, they change the character of those blocks, and in some eyes, the character of the city. The world’s population of tourists keeps growing. Cruise ships keep growing in both size and numbers. The money involved keeps growing, an irresistible temptation. The number of passengers keeps growing. But the port communities they visit remain the same size. Without constraints, Charleston could find itself an example of that oxymoron attributed to Yogi Berra:

“Nobody goes there any more. It’s too crowded.”

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Jonathan Tourtellot
National Geographic Fellow Emeritus; Founding Director, Nat Geo Center for Sustainable Destinations; former Geotourism Editor, National Geographic Traveler; CEO, Destination Stewardship Center; President, Focus on Places LLC