Charleston on course for new cruise-ship era

CHARLESTON - Charleston's first year-round cruise ship season began Monday when the Celebrity Mercury docked downtown to pick up 1,898 passengers for a Caribbean vacation.

The season is expected to bring $37 million to the local economy this year, according to the State Ports Authority.

"The cruise ships usually will drop a lot of money," said Carla Mishoe, a food vendor on the City Market and tour bus driver who was waiting to pick up some of the ship's crew to go shopping.

Sirlon DeCosta of India, who works on the ship's cleaning crew, was carrying a Hewlett-Packard computer he bought here for $700. "It's good to work on the ship because you save a lot of money," DeCosta said.

Canadians Brianne Loop and Meghan LaFrance, Broadway show-tune dancers on the Mercury, said they were going to Starbucks, Urban Outfitters, Victoria's Secret and the Apple computer store. "This is actually one of our favorite parts. It's the shopping," said Loop, a Vancouver, British Columbia, resident.

Cruise director Stewart Turnbull was off to shop and have lunch before the ship departed in the afternoon for the 11-day cruise. "We were just saying how beautiful Charleston looks just from the pier," Turnbull said.

Ship casino dealer Carolyn Jones, a native of Newcastle, England, had two bags full of shampoos and other personal items as she headed back to the ship. She said the crew represents 200 different nationalities. "It's a great life," she said.

Monday was the first of seven embarkation sailings aboard the Mercury that continue through April, including 10- and 11-night Caribbean voyages as well as a 16-night transit through the Panama Canal that disembarks in Los Angeles.

As a cold wind blew on Concord Street, James Island resident Ernest Grimball was readying to board the ship with his wife, Kathleen. "It's like your hotel is moving with you," he said. Grimball liked the convenience of being able to sail out of Charleston. "I live in the Port City, and it's just easier for me."

Cab driver Tom Finnerty and his wife, Karen, came to see the ship because they are traveling on it when it leaves here April 9. "We're local, and it's nice being able to leave out of Charleston," he said. "She wanted to see what the ship looked like."

The Celebrity Mercury's next embarkation will be Feb. 26, followed by sailings March 8, 19 and 29, and April 9 and 19. The ship also is booked for a series of five sailings from Charleston in 2011.

For the first time in Charleston history, a cruise ship also will call year-round beginning in May. The 2,056-passenger Carnival Fantasy will more than double the number of pleasure excursions in the city this year. The hope for the hospitality trade is that the ship will draw more first-time tourists who might decide to return later for an extended visit.

Each cruise ship will bring about $323,000 in local direct spending and will support more than 400 full-time jobs in the tri-county area in 2010, according to a new study commissioned by the Ports Authority.

The Charlestowne Neighborhood Association was upset in November about the traffic snarls caused by a cruise ship coming to town. As a result, a new traffic management plan was implemented Monday. Police were out in force and rerouting traffic at Concord and North Market streets.

Association president Elizabeth Farley Clarke said Monday afternoon that she had received no complaints about traffic related to the ship. "Sometimes we don't get it (a complaint) until a week later," she said. "I think they're trying to come up with a solution that works for the residents."

Clarke said one problem in November was that residents couldn't get to Harris-Teeter, the only supermarket in the neighborhood.

There was serious traffic congestion when a cruise ship called here in November, Ports Authority spokesman Byron Miller said. "It was not a good situation. We took steps."

Among the improvements were new route and entrance points on port property that moved cruise-related traffic off city streets. Also, there are now better signs near the terminal and an e-mail notification system for residents and businesses, Miller said.

"Generally, I think based on the response that I've heard from our neighbors and everyone else, it was rather effectively managed," he said.

Police reported no problems from the cruise ship traffic.

Ship facts

Occupancy: 1,886 Tonnage: 77,713 Length: 866 feet Beam: 105.6 feet Draught: 25.5 feet Cruise Speed: nearly 25 mph Inaugural Date: Nov. 2, 1997

Find out more

For more information or to book a cruise, call your local travel agent, dial (800) 437-3111 or visit www.celebritycruises.com.