When her home town of Charleston, S.C., became a top tourist spot, everything changed

December 19, 2013

I grew up in the best city in the United States.

No, really.

The readers of CondéNast Traveler agree: They’ve voted Charleston, S.C., the top destination in the country three years in a row.

Not convinced? Ask the editors of Travel + Leisure. They ranked it No. 1 in North America for 2013.

We’ve been called the prettiest, the friendliest, the best in the world.

For natives who left (like me), these accolades offer bragging rights in Facebook snippets. And great cocktail party conversation starters when we feel a need to defend the Palmetto State to seemingly more cosmopolitan friends from places like New York and Washington.

“Seeeee, we ARE cultured. And history buffs. And, like, really pretty.”

The idea that these rankings, plus scores of glowing travel articles about the beauties of Charleston, could be a negative — even undesirable — had never occurred to me. Then I went home for a week-long stay. And suddenly I realized that all the CondéNast love and the culinary-world obsession with Charleston has a downside.

Namely, more tourists. A lot more.

The number of people visiting the city annually grew 17 percent in a recent four-year span, reaching 4.8 million in 2012. Which, shall we say, dwarfs the permanent population of . . . 125,000.

And that has brought Charleston to the precipice of change. But I wonder: Can a city remain a hidden gem if its crown jewels have been splashed in detail across the pages of international publications? Can a place whose allure resides in quaint, narrow streets, historic buildings and pristine beaches maintain its appeal when millions more demand a perfect viewing?

These questions started to bother me during my last visit home.

My annual summertime homesickness had gotten the best of me, and I’d managed to secure a cheap flight and a few vacation days in August. The real coup was securing a nearly clear schedule during my stay. I’d avoid the typical whirlwind of obligatory family time and bridal/wedding/baby showers.

This would be a true vacation. I would lie on the beach. I’d shop and eat. In other words, I’d play tourist in a city I’d spent two decades in but hadn’t fully experienced in the past several years.

What I hadn’t anticipated: The Charleston circa 2009 that had been living in my memory no longer existed.

My secret parking spaces? Gone. Time estimates for driving downtown and to the beaches? Grossly miscalculated. Expectation that dinner reservations weren’t necessary? A thing of the past.

I bemoaned these losses to a friend over a few beers on a rainy Wednesday night at the Tattooed Moose, an uptown dive. We huddled under the awning, watching the flooding rain that had kept lots of folks in for the evening.

Tourists, my friend sighed, rolling his eyes. It was bad enough that CondéNast readers chose Charleston as the best destination in the nation starting in 2011, but then last year the magazine named the city the top travel destination on the planet. The influx of visitors has been nonstop since.

Working in the food and beverage industry and living downtown, he said, he finds himself staring smack at the quandary that many residents face: Tourists contribute to his paycheck, but they may also be more likely to, for instance, litter outside his restaurant. “The guy from New Jersey doesn’t care if he throws his cigarette butt on the ground next to the trash can,” he lamented.

On the other hand, the tourism industry had a $3.58 billion economic impact on the city in 2012, according to the Office of Tourism Analysis in the School of Business at the College of Charleston. Reliance on that income has created something of a moral dilemma. How do residents avoid being overrun without swatting away the hand that feeds them?

It’s all about balance, says Evan Thompson of the city’s Preservation Society. I called him after I got back to Washington and saw that Charleston had won the CondéNast voter’s contest for 2013. “Balancing residential interests with commercial, locals and visitors, old and new,” he said. “Everything needs to be kept in scale.”

It’s hard to keep things in scale, though, when a cruise ship arrives in town.

Buildings on the Charleston peninsula have long been subject to strict height limits that keep the skyline dotted with a few steeples yet largely open to the surrounding water. But when Carnival pulls into port, the sprawling views are a little less, well, sprawling.

The number of passenger ships coming into port changed dramatically when the Carnival Fantasy became home-
ported in Charleston in 2010; it has more than doubled since 2002. The South Carolina Ports Authority has also announced plans to build a new, larger terminal, which many believe to be an invitation to more (and larger) ships.

These changes have struck a bit of a nerve, to say the least.

Environmentalists, neighborhood groups and the Coastal Conservation League are battling the city and the Ports Authority and have filed several lawsuits that are still pending.

But others seem to think more like Tim Klinefelter, a manager at a seafood restaurant in the heart of the tourist area. Klinefelter has found a secret way to get to his bank, and he tries to avoid East Bay Street, which is the main thoroughfare to the port and also the street where his restaurant is located. So “it doesn’t really affect me all that much,” he said.

But ironically, the boatloads of tourists haven’t brought him much business, either. From his experience, cruise passengers don’t eat at area restaurants, because their onboard meals are included in their fares. And the tourists who come to town before getting on the Fantasy typically arrive on a Friday night. “I’m already busy on a Friday,” says Klinefelter. “I don’t necessarily see an increase in sales.”

I’d been largely ambivalent about the issue before I started a downward spiral of Internet research about Charleston’s future when I got back to Washington. It was one of those Wikipedia-type clicking sessions that led me to news of a proposal for nine acres of surface parking for cruisers’ cars.

Call me a romantic, but Joni Mitchell was stuck in my head for the next several days.

I felt another pang of exclusion after a day at Folly Beach, one of the barrier islands a few miles outside the city. I’d been dreaming about it for weeks — me alone with a beach chair, a few magazines and a book. It was a quiet Tuesday and a heavenly escape from work.

But when I got back to my car, parked on a side street, I was greeted with a ticket.

I’ll be the first to admit to my flair for the dramatic, so my reaction may have been a tad hyperbolic.

“A ticket?” I roared. (Thankfully, no one was around to hear.) “But I know every parking regulation and insider trick on this island!”

I’ve been driving and parking on Folly Beach for years. But I’d made the mistake of parking somewhat cock-eyed and had been slapped with a $50 citation for failing to have my wheels parallel to the curb.

Renters tend to have access to driveways on their leased property, but those coming for the day have to battle for the few spots in paid lots or park along the street. To me, the ticket was an indication that as a day-tripper, I was unwelcome. And whether or not it’s strategic, it feels like a type of crowd control.

Mayor Tim Goodwin admitted that the city has a focus on long-term visitors. “The folks who come to stay for a weekend or a week, they’re of more value to the city, they’re paying the accommodations tax,” he said later over the phone. “The folks who come for the day, you don’t get a lot.”

Goodwin makes no pretense of the fact that day-trippers get the brunt of the parking and traffic enforcement. It’s an ironic admission for the mayor, who grew up in North Charleston and told me that he also has driven down to Folly Beach nearly all his life.

But “there are different type of tourists and different types of problems,” he said. “We typically find most of those problems created by folks who come to do the day.”

My parents are Yankee transplants who moved to the area nearly 30 years ago. They’re far from true locals, who by Charleston definition must have been born and bred in the city and must have at least seven cousins in neighboring towns.

Nevertheless, they’re ready to pull up the drawbridges. That’s a reference to a long-running family joke about true locals being so unconcerned with the outside world that they’d rather turn the city into a makeshift island than deal with new people.

But since this isn’t a viable option (at least not that we know of), my parents’ more realistic solution is increased planning.

Mom sent the first e-mail asking where she should make dinner reservations before I left Washington — a sweet sentiment that I immediately classified as over-precaution, akin to reminding me to pack a sweater.

Naturally, I procrastinated for several days before responding. Walking into restaurants in Charleston had never been a problem. You could decide to go to dinner at one of the best spots in the city on a whim and maybe wait long enough to finish a drink at the bar before being seated.

But sure enough, when I finally tried to book a table at Mike Lata’s new seafood altar, the Ordinary, the only opening was a Tuesday at 5:30 p.m.

Over our feast of oysters and barbecue shrimp, Mom and Dad assured me that this competitive reservation game was the new norm. They’d recently ventured to the Grocery, a relatively new neighborhood eatery a block and a half from the Ordinary, but had wound up huddled over a communal bar table with no other seating to be had.

“Aunt Marty and Uncle Richie are coming to visit in two weeks,” they said. “We’re already making reservations.”

What makes the demand even more astounding is the number of restaurants that have popped up over the past year or two. Lata estimates that 600 to 700 seats have opened in the Upper King Street neighborhood.

After dinner, my parents and I strolled down King Street, passing the apartment where I lived for a year and a half in 2009. At the time, the neighborhood was in transition, and my parents installed an alarm in my car and gave me a pink bottle of Mace to assuage their fears. The idea that a few years later, a James Beard best new restaurant nominee would be inhabiting an abandoned bank on the same block would never have occurred to us.

Now, walking the palmetto-lined street feels like a game of Duck, Duck, Goose — Restaurant Version. New, new, old, new. If it was a drinking game, I’d be on the ground.

Telling my friends in Washington about my “problems” at home brought me back to reality.

“I couldn’t get a dinner reservation at the most popular restaurant in town,” I whined.

[Blank stares.]

“And parking was so hard.” [Sound of crickets chirping quietly somewhere.]

Had I become that person? The one who complains when his favorite indie band shoots to the top of iTunes? Or an underground artist she thought only she knew about is suddenly everywhere?

Maybe.

I’d always known the truth about Charleston — as all locals do. It’s a place so beautiful, “it makes your eyes ache with pleasure just to walk down its spellbinding, narrow streets,” as our appointed laureate, Pat Conroy, writes in “South of Broad.”

So there’s a jealousy that creeps in unexpectedly when someone else is playing with your favorite toy. And an equally childish urge to prevent change.

Will I grow up and deal with these new truths?

Yes. And I’ll relish the new opportunities and the restaurants that come with Charleston’s tourist-fave status.

But every once in a while, I may daydream about pulling up the drawbridges.

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