Historic Charleston, S.C., struggles to balance tourism with preservation

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The "congenitally gracious" residents of this historic port city also possess the "siege mentality of islanders" and a "scriptural belief that they are simply superior to other people of the earth." So writes best-selling author and frequent visitor Pat Conroy.

And as the grande dame of the South primps for the annual profusion of blossoms and winter-weary tourists (the Historic Charleston Foundation's spring home-and-garden tour runs through April 17), a long-standing debate over the fragile equilibrium of hospitality, preservation and quality of life is heating up.

Among recent flashpoints: Carnival Cruise Line's launch of year-round sailings from Charleston on May 18, preceded by Celebrity Cruises' decision to base some Caribbean sailings here from February through mid-April. The moves have prompted the Charleston-based South Carolina Coastal Conservation League to warn of pollution, increased traffic and "hit and run" tourism....

All this is high on the agenda of a new civic task force addressing development in the city of 120,000 — including a relocated cruise terminal and increased visitor access to the waterfront.

Founded in 1670 and notable for its concentration of exquisitely restored Georgian, Federal and Greek Revival mansions — most famously in the square-mile neighborhood known as South of Broad (Street) — Charleston claims to be the first U.S. city to enact a tourism ordinance, in 1984.

Designed to "protect and promote the aesthetic charm of the city and the quality of life for its residents" and updated in 1994 and 1998, the regulations manage the number of buses and carriages allowed to tour within the historic district, allow no more than 20 participants in organized walking tours, and license all tour guides. Also on the books: a ban on hotel construction along the Charleston Harbor....

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