Would you take a cruise to Haiti this week?
comment 3 Written by on January 18, 2010 – 5:50 am


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.

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3 Responses to “Would you take a cruise to Haiti this week?”

  1. This story just made the front page of the CNN website: http://edition.cnn.com/2010/TRAVEL/01/21/haiti.tourism.ethics/index.html?hpt=C1

    By Matt on Jan 21, 2010 | Reply
  2. Thanks Matt.

    “Haiti cruise stops draw ire, support” – that’s a terrible headline! They need new subs.

    But besides that, an interesting (if one-sided) article, showing it’s not as simple as it seems on surface level. It does however still follow that defense strategy that ‘we had to go back NOW NOW NOW’ or pull out of operations FOREVER. That’s no argument. The issue that got people riled was the timing and whether the visit would really do good in the here and now.

    As an instinct (rightly or wrongly), I’m not wholly convinced by Royal Caribbean’s motives and their ‘we’re a great friend of Haiti’ talk. However, I don’t know the full details and history of the deals struck. I’d be interested to find out more.

    I’m not a fan of this type of travel at the best of times, but it’s also very easy to demonize the big guys and say ‘Well, if I had a cruise ship, I do this…” I don’t think there’s an easy ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, but it’s an important debate and Royal Caribbean now have claw back some good PR, which may mean engaging with Haitian locals more than before.

    Interesting quote here from a Guardian blog by Gwyn Topham, who has written a book about the dark side of cruise tourism called Overboard, which has been on my must-read list for sometime.

    “Royal Caribbean’s pledge to “not abandon Haiti now they need us most” might raise eyebrows in other destinations: such as Grenada, abandoned in the late 1990s for requesting a modest waste management levy, or conversely Alaska, who found it difficult to keep cruise liners away despite a referendum seeking to curb their effects on unspoilt waters. The worth of cruises to their ports of call has long been controversial. Certainly, the logic of the private beach does not suggest funds being channelled openly to local economies.”


    It will be interesting to see how this story unfolds and what Royal Caribbean does next. All eyes are on them right now. And at least this has now brought the debate of the relationship (financial and otherwise) between locals and tourists to a much wider audience.

    By Vicky Baker on Jan 21, 2010 | Reply

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