As you think about grumbling because of the hordes of tourists jamming Charleston’s streets this weekend during the annual Southeastern Wildlife Exposition, consider this: We should be thanking them. Without millions of visitors spending time in the Holy City, we wouldn’t have the high quality of life that we enjoy year-round thanks to the money they pump into our community. Their patronage allows us to have great restaurants, arts, museums, music options and a pretty good quality of life, despite increased congestion and growth.
Like it or not, more than 7.4 million people visit the Charleston area every year, according to a College of Charleston economic analysis. Their fiscal impact is almost $10 billion — yes, billion — every year. That has generated 47,000 jobs by entrepreneurs to hire staff to run restaurants, galleries, markets, music venues and even tacky T-shirt shops.
Imagine if we didn’t have that economic engine powering our economy. Would we have the arts programs that fostered the unparalleled talents like Gullah roots group Ranky Tanky, which won its second Grammy Award last week, or gospel group Maverick City Music, which earned four Grammys? Would we attract talented chefs who open restaurants that routinely are recognized among the nation’s best and win James Beard Foundation awards with regularity? Would we have the economic capacity to be able to open a new museum for the world to explore African American roots in the United States?
It wasn’t too many years ago that Charleston was a kind of cultural desert. Back in the 1980s, for example, food historian John Martin Taylor remembers how it was almost impossible to find a plate of shrimp and grits, a dish that you can’t walk a block without tripping over now. Back then, the city’s cuisine — like its music, arts and overall culture — was a duller, standard fare without the flair and creativity found around every corner today.
Credit should go to the city’s past fathers, who created the welcoming environment to attract Spoleto Festival USA, which exposed Charleston to the creative world. Or the folks who started SEWE, now in its 41st year. Or to scores of planners and officials who upgraded the Charleston Gaillard Center, TD Arena, North Charleston Performing Arts Center and other cultural blessings.
So on this crisp weekend where Charleston will be invaded by an army of visitors wearing khaki, green, brown and the occasional blaze of orange, be welcoming. Thank them for visiting. Because we would not have what we have the rest of the year without people who come here to learn what we’re all about.
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