Managing Tourism for a Livable City

Tourism in Charleston is imposing major pressure on our infrastructure. In 2019, the City welcomed over 7 million visitors, an extraordinary number considering the peninsula’s population of just 40,000. Strong and consistent management will enhance Charleston’s quality of life as well as the visitor experience.

Managing Tourism for a Livable City

Advocacy for Charleston

The Preservation Society is a committed advocate for sustainable tourism. The City was a pioneer when it adopted the nation’s first local tourism management plan in 1978, but in recent years has missed opportunities to modernize its policies and programs. Key current issues in Charleston tourism that must be addressed include housing affordability, the loss of neighborhood businesses, and increasing congestion.

Tourism is not new to Charleston. Visitation to historic buildings was an important economic driver of early historic preservation efforts in the 1920s. And, as the City quickly learned, over-tourism can have harmful consequences. When tourists began whisking away the decorative elements adorning the City’s historic dwellings, the Preservation Society responded by pressing for stronger City oversight and later adopted an informal motto: “Gut Fish, Not Houses.”

Ironically, the destination marketing for Charleston today heavily features the iconic sites that earlier generations had the foresight to preserve. Rainbow Row, once a dilapidated set of rowhouses, graces social media feeds all over the world. Travelers are undoubtedly lured by the city’s architectural beauty that preservationists have worked to defend.

But, at a point, the attention can strain our City and diminish the values that make it so unique. We face a significant housing shortage at a time when market pressure for hotels and short-term rentals is soaring. Neighborhood-serving businesses are being pushed out by high-end shops and restaurants that cater to tourists. And the quality of the visitor experience is at risk when we romanticize and inaccurately characterize the City’s past.

Our strategy for progress focuses on three key aspects of over-tourism:

Telling the full story

The Charleston story is full of critically important narratives, which risk being diluted when its history is overly romanticized. Our research and initiatives team is dedicated to expanding the story and providing the city’s tour guides, visitors, and residents a more complete picture of the contributions of those who shaped Charleston’s history.  To ensure the dissemination of accurate historical information, we also support voluntary self-certification of local tour guides. Successful lawsuits from individuals who were unable to pass Charleston’s rigorous tour guide exam have unfortunately diminished the reputation and professionalism of the city’s interpretive experience.

Maintaining affordable housing

The proliferation of hotels and short-term rentals has reduced the stock of long-term rentals and raised housing prices. In 2018 the Preservation Society was instrumental in enacting one of the most restrictive short-term rental policies in the nation. The City has also made headway in restricting the number of new, large hotels. Yet industry pressures to weaken these laws are ever-present. We anticipate renewed efforts to weaken these laws and are a committed partner with the City on consistent and meaningful enforcement of key regulations.

Sustaining the local economy

Tourism can have an important, positive economic impact. But unless tourist dollars are spent on products that support the local economy, we are left without funding to offset the impact visitors have on the city’s infrastructure. Leading by example, the Preservation Society Shop on King Street is wholly dedicated to supporting local makers. Our Advocacy Team also presses for city policies that enhance small and neighborhood-serving businesses and keep our commercial districts vibrant.

PSC Advocacy to Support Tourism Management

Regulating Hotels and Short-term Rentals

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Empowering Neighborhood-Serving Businesses

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Preservation is a Movement

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