There was a cry of horror when Royal Caribbean announced it would be resuming cruises to Haiti as early as last Friday. Immediately, people started to picture the scenario: hoards of spoilt tourists shaking their head in pity, before sailing away into the sunset and taking their minds off the nastiness with an all-you-can-eat midnight buffet.
But then came the defense strategy: Royal Caribbean ships call at Labadee, a private beach resort on the north coast of Haiti, which, they say, was "not affected" by this national tragedy. The company has leased Labadee from the Haitian government since 1986 and pays $6 for every passenger that stops off in the island.
Not affected? As counter arguments go, it was hardly convincing. It was baffling as to why they wanted to resume holiday mode just three days after such an event. Was the assumption that if they didn’t return immediately, the whole 24-year-old deal would suddenly collapse? Wouldn’t the appropriate response to leave some time out of respect – at least more than three days – while continuing to make the payments in the interim?
But Royal Caribbean quickly pointed out that the ship would also be bringing aid. Supplies on board would include "items such as rice, dried beans, powdered milk, water and canned goods". The company, which employs over 200 Haitians, also said "100 percent of the company’s net revenue from the destination will be contributed to the relief effort".
Does this make the decision acceptable? Ideally, the said ship would have been packed to the rafters with supplies and the passengers would be medical staff, in the same vein as some airlines have turned over their planes to relief efforts. In fairness, this particular vessel must have been en route when the earthquake hit, but more are set to follow.
In Haiti, 80 percent of the population lives on less than two dollars a day. According to the Miami Herald, Royal Caribbean recently spent $55 million to upgrade Labadee, adding a new pier, a zipline and a rollercoaster. Even though this provides jobs, it’s hard not to find the contrast disturbing, even at the so-called best of times, which are hardly rosy in the world’s poorest country.
Some have defended the company’s decision to dock this week as an admirable move to restore a sense of ‘normalcy’. But can anyone really suggest that offloading camera-totting tourists to an exclusive beach resort will make things feel normal for Haitians right now?
Photo by palestrina55 on Flickr. Creative commons.