Once again City officials have turned southward to find answers to a contentious problem -- the influx of oversized, 21st century motorcoaches trying to navigate 18th century streets within Old Town Alexandria's Historic District.
This time it's the Motorcoach Task Force seeking answers. And, again it’s Charleston, S.C., to the rescue. Or, so the Task Force hopes.
Monday night, in City Hall's Sister Cities Room, Charleston's Director of Tourism, Vanessa Turner-Maybank, laid out her city's approach and methodologies to handling tourism. It was a truly professional approach to handling not only large motorcoaches, but also carriages, regular transportation bus, and even walking tours.
Charleston's approach to dealing with the dualism of tourism versus residential/historical preservation is to view it through the prism of quality of life for its residents as opposed to that of economic sustainability.
"Tourism is an important aspect of our city. But, quality of life to our residents is equally important. We have found it is possible to strike an equitable balance," Turner-Maybank told task force members and an audience of interested citizens.
"When we started on this program to balance the two aspects to control tourism within our historic districts we were told by the tour bus industry and others that we were heading for economic disaster. It would be a lemon. Well that lemon turn out to be lemonade," she said.
Turner-Maybank has been at the head of Charleston's tourism pyramid for 24 years. She has personally overseen the creation and implementation of the myriad facets that have been put in place to control the flow of its four million visitors per year. They not only work, they generate enough revenue to make her operation fiscally self-sufficient.
<b>EVERY TOUR BUS</b> arriving in Charleston reports into the Visitors Center. There they pick up their tour guide who is personally certified and licensed by the city. If there is a screw-up in the bus route, loading or unloading, movement in traffic or other actions it is that tour guide that pays the price -- not the bus driver.
The city has developed a series of permits issued through citywide ordinances. The tour permit, yellow, is issued to the tour guide, not the bus driver. The responsibility rests with the tour guide, according to Turner-Maybank.
Each tour guide is certified by the city after passing both a written and oral examination. No uncertified tour guides operate within the city legally and the tour bus companies are aware of that.
There are also an entire series of permits and ordinances applying to carriage operators, of which there are multiple companies operating in the city under city owned operational medallions. Even walking tours in the historic district operate under controlled guidelines -- no more than 20 people in any given walking tour group.
As for the carriage companies, many are owned and operated by Charleston residents. Therefore, they have a dual vested interest — financial success and preservation of the city's quality of life -- in adhering to the rules and regulations, as Turner-Maybank pointed out.
Each carriage company pays an annual fee of $17,500 per year for one slot in the city's loading zone to pickup and drop off passengers. "Most of the companies want two slots in order to increase their flow of passengers," she said.
Tour buses also pay a flat fee based on their size, type and potential passenger load. That is supplemented by a per seat charge per bus.
"We were warned at the beginning by the chamber of commerce, tour bus companies, and others, that all our ordinances and regulations were going to turn off the tour bus industry. Tourism would collapse and the city would be in deep financial trouble. None of that happened," she said.
"Actually, the exact opposite happened. It all came to be viewed as a real plus by the tourism industry. They actually like the rules and regulations. It makes their lives easier and less contentious. The lemon became lemonade," Turner-Maybank said.
Tour bus operators appreciate knowing exactly what the rules are, where and when they can and cannot go, what their hours of operation are, and where they can and cannot park. The various permits are viewed as a plus by the tour bus operators, it makes everything clear and definable, according to Turner-Maybank. The Visitors Center coordination point is the linchpin to the entire operation.
Charleston started on its tourism organizational/development plan in 1952. The mayor established a commission to analyze the effects of tourism on the city in 1980. It took four years to enact the first tourism ordinance, according to Turner-Maybank.
"It is a work in progress. We have a series of on-going committees that constantly evaluate all aspects of tourism's impact on the city and our residents," she told Task Force members. The guiding ordinances were updated in 1994 and again in 1998.
<b>DURING THEIR</b> July 28 meeting Task Force members heard the same doom and gloom warnings about initiating a permit system and over-control of tour buses from Peter J. Pantuso, president and CEO, American Bus Association, as was predicted in Charleston. "Permits will do little than drive companies away," Pantuso told the Task Force.
Some of his other insights were: Other cities that require permits cannot fit a motorcoach at all; As D.C. becomes more restrictive, Old Town has an opportunity to benefit from business and longer reservations. In other words Alexandria can capitalize on D.C.'s desire to balance tourism and livability.
What was missing from his presentation was at the essence of Turner-Maybank's -- putting quality of life for residents front and center.
In closing her presentation, Turner-Maybank offered to assist Alexandria in any way possible to find solutions to better manage the tourism influx, particularly those arriving on large motorcoaches.
Following a series of questions from both Task Force members and those attending the meeting, Turner-Maybank was applauded for both her insights and expertise. The next meeting of the Motorcoach Task Force is scheduled for Aug. 25 in the Sister Cities Room of City Hall.