Cruise ships like the Carnival Sunshine idling offshore have been cited as major sources of particulate pollution in downtown Charleston | Credit: Sam Spence file photo

It will have been almost two years since a Carnival cruise liner has welcomed passengers aboard when the Sunshine pleasure ship sails back to Charleston. The company last week announced the Carnival Sunshine would restart service in January in Charleston and by February at several other U.S. ports.

Carnival cruises may offer tourists a cheap vacation, but the deal is not nearly as good for Charleston. Coming out of the pandemic, the Holy City’s stance on the bargain-basement cruises needs another look.

After being rocked by the pandemic, the cruise industry — like many of us — is eager for a return to normal. But business as usual for cruise lines has almost always meant an adversarial, unhappy relationship with local residents, who too often are dwarfed by the companies’ smoke-belching mega ships that float into the Port of Charleston.

Carnival capped off the most recent chapter in its tepid relationship with Charlestonians in March 2020, when the Sunshine crew dumped a ship full of customers into downtown Charleston without simple temperature checks to screen for COVID-19, despite assurances that safety protocols were in place.

At the time, after reportedly being told by state port officials that testing was in place, S.C. Sen. Sandy Senn, R-Charleston, rightly said the move was “irresponsible and deserves examining further.”

A Carnival spokesman told WCIV-TV no passengers exhibited symptoms, so no testing was needed. We’re still stunned by that kind of irresponsible reaction.

When it comes to operating cruises in Charleston, the bare minimum is what most locals have come to expect. Meanwhile, state and local officials claim to be over a barrel with few options but to appease operators like Carnival — a company known to exploit overseas tax and labor laws to maximize profits.

But for what? State Ports Authority (SPA) reports show cruises generate only meager earnings and pump a small percentage of tourists through Charleston — some only long enough to drive in, park their cars and drive home.

Cruises brought in $10.4 million for the SPA in 2019, about 3.5% of its total revenue. The 213,081 passengers who boarded at Union Pier accounted for about 2.87% of local tourism in 2019, according to Charleston County Economic Development. The wear and tear on traffic and crowding costs more than that to locals who endure.

Charleston city leaders have tried to take a harder line on cruises over the years, but only litigation has managed to slow cruise ships’ advance on the peninsula.

At sea, cruise ships operated by Carnival and others burn a highly polluting version of industrial diesel fuel, bellowing exhaust while vacationers sip pina coladas below. While docked in downtown Charleston, the ships are required to switch to a cleaner-burning fuel, but still idle one engine for the duration of the stay.

Nationwide, major cruise ports are pressuring ocean liners by outfitting docks with shore power — the ability for the ships to plug in rather than run an engine.

Yes, South Carolina still relies on fossil fuels for much of its power generation, so it’s not a perfect solution. But a 2013 report by the Southern Environmental Law Center showed shore power at the Port of Charleston would reduce harmful carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide and particulate matter pollution.

Let’s be clear: Charleston does not need cruise ships.

But from Miami to San Diego to Seattle, shore power is expanding. If we’re going to allow ships to sidle up to downtown (we vote no), it’s time for South Carolina state agencies to work with Charleston and step up to the plate to get serious about reducing environmental impacts of these dirty eyesores.

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