Kathy Riordan

Kathy Riordan
Florida, United States
April 27
One woman's view of life and the universe. Follow @katriord on Twitter.


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Editor’s Pick
JANUARY 19, 2010 10:13AM

Cruising to Haiti In a Sea of Crisis and Controversy

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In my Wisconsin kitchen there's a colorful steel drum sculpture of a Caribbean cottage and palm trees brightening up the walls, an ironic reminder of one of the most depressing days of my life aboard a cruise ship.  Of all the many days I've spent at sea, arguably the most depressing was at Labadee, a "private island" on a peninsula in Haiti which Royal Caribbean Cruise Line (RCCL) uses as a port of call on some of their Caribbean cruises.

That was many years ago, and even then it was striking, the poverty and the desire to frolic in the face of it dismal.  

As bad as it was, it can't compare with the current devastation on Haiti, rocked by massive earthquake destruction, death and despair.

Yet Royal Caribbean continues to call at Labadee, just 90 miles north of Port-au-Prince, as it has for years, disembarking passengers for a day of fun in the sun, complete with a beach barbecue and shopping at a local marketplace.


Despite the fact that Royal Caribbean ships are also bringing in disaster relief supplies, the cruise line finds itself embroiled in controversy as a result of continuing to call at the Haitian port.  Some passengers are refusing to disembark, and other future passengers are questioning their decision to cruise with RCCL.  The cruise line claims, however, that most passengers are supportive of their decision to continue to call at Labadee.

RCCL has a 30-year relationship with Haiti, and its decision to make a regular port of call there has brought in much needed tourism money to a country that was already economically crippled long before the recent disaster.



Royal Caribbean Associate Vice-President John Weis wrote on a cruise line blog that they weighed the decision carefully before proceeding.  "There were a lot of discussions. . .but in the end, Labadee is critical to Haiti's recovery, and hundreds of people rely on Labadee for their livelihood," according to Weis.  He acknowledged they consulted  the U.N. Special Envoy of the Government of Haiti before making a final decision, saying the envoy stressed that the continued calls of the cruise line at Labadee would be critical to the country's recovery following the quake.

Royal Caribbean has pledged 100% of the net revenue it makes from these Haiti calls to the relief and recovery of the country, in addition to a $1 million pledge already made.   The ships coming into the country are being loaded with food, water and supplies to deliver to Haiti.

"Simply put," Weis said, "we cannot abandon Haiti now when they need us most." 

It is expected the decision to continue to call at the Haitian port will remain controversial, possibly costing Royal Caribbean some business, but they seem determined to continue to call at Labadee and continue their relationship with the island nation in spite of it. 


On the Web:  

Should cruise ships be docking in Haiti? - Times Online 

Cruise-Ship Tourists Visit Haiti - ABC

Members Speak Out: Should Cruise Ships Have Returned to Haiti? - Cruise Critic Message Boards 

Carnival Earmarks $5 million for Haiti - South Florida Business Journal 

Haiti: Hope and Tourism at Labadee - Pulitzer Center 

Amid the Woe, a Haitian Paradise Beckons - NY Times 

RCCL Passenger video from Labadee, taken in 2006.


Photo credits (top to bottom):

A steel drum sculpture similar to the one on my kitchen wall in Wisconsin, a souvenir of a day in Labadee, a cruise line port-of-call in Haiti. (photo:  haitianart.com) 

A sunny day in Labadee, Haiti, a cruise line port of call on a peninsula 90 miles north of Port-au-Prince.  (photo: Wikimedia)  

Royal Caribbean chairman and CEO Richard Fain shows former President Bill Clinton around Labadee in October 2009.  Clinton was visiting Haiti as special envoy for the UN to the island nation. (photo: RCCL)  



Please see Asta Charles' excellent piece on the same topic:  Sometimes Economies Float

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While I understand the response of passengers to withdraw and that RCCL's continuing to use Labadee as the port of call, I cannot see how them stopping their trips will aid Haitians in any way especially since the country needs a place that is thriving. I"m not sure that would be my first choice but for different reasons.
Love the steel drum sculpture.
The second wave of disaster may start soon. There will be diseases from the destruction and deaths. I wonder if the passengers are put at risk. - Thanks for the article, Kathy. Hopefully, RCCL is sharing its expertise in this port as Port-au-Prince is recovering from damage to its shipping harbour.
so sad. that beautiful island country deserves better than the lot they've had. maybe the earthquake was a catalyst. I believe in catalysts, descending so low a catastrophy blazes into your life and forces positive change.

anyone with half a brain was aware of the extreme poverty and destitution in Haiti. and now what little system they had has collapsed. rebuilding will mean jobs and educating the children, rebuilding is going to have to mean permitting this country to have it's own police and military, it's OWN leadership. we've got to stop interfering in their self governing. we've got to allow this nation to grow. they are not our pool of slave labor, which is what they have historically been relegated to.
and getting to your point, I commend Royal Caribbean for having the decency to continue the flow of revenue, however small. if you're a partying passenger, no doubt t's a bit of a downer in your merriment to have to be reminded of these horrific events, but if you are a human being, you might actually enjoy the experience of being on one of the vessels that brought relief and supplies to this beleagured country.
It's a complicated issue, Kathy. When I saw the news articles about this yesterday my gut reaction was disgust-- like fiddling while Rome burns. But it is a complex equation of tourist revenue that both benefits and exploits the people who live in beautiful but impoverished places around the world. Thanks for presenting this.
Perhaps they could make the stop a humanitarian stop where people could be of some service. Otherwise, there will be loud whining and wailing when those jokers return to suburbia with dysentery, cholera, and other nasty little souveniers.

I love that sculpture.
Great post, Kathy.

My feeling is that, especially since cruise ships are also aiding in bringing supplies into the country, it really isn't all that harmful.

Haiti needs the parts of the country that were undamaged by the quake to keep working, keep producing, keep those tourist dollars coming, if it's going to have any real chance of recovery later.
This opens up a wider societal moral question. When Americans move to poor countries like the Phillipines and take advantage of the awful poverty and corrupt government in order to live like kings. My co-worker is planning to move there because for $300/month you can have a full staff: cook, gardener, housecleaner, masseuse. He thinks it's awesome! I call it immoral and taking advantage of those less fortunate than you. Don't fool yourselves into thinking shopping somewhere for a day helps these people; helping them would be working so they become free, with a healthy economy, so they can vacation where they please, not live as servants their entire existence. IMHO.
Amazing how things can get so askew amidst such immense beauty.
I am hoping the attention given with the outpouring of aid will spark interest in the world making a firmer commitment to this nation. We really need to look at ourselves and see the insensitivity of leisure and frolic just steps away from poverty and misery. Thanks for a great article Kathy.
Labadee is not an island. You can drive to it from Cap Haitian. Perhaps they call it a private island to pretend it's not just outside the city.
Malusinka, I'm aware that Labadee is on a peninsula, and have edited the article to reflect that. Cruise lines use the term "private island" to indicate any space they themselves own or have under contract for their exclusive use as a destination. Generally these tend to be in the Caribbean. Thanks for adding the clarification.
Interesting. I cruised various parts of the Caribbean many times on different lines, but I've never been to Haiti. Interesting. Thanks.
This is well written, of course Kathy, but I actually don't know what to think. I cannot imagine anyone I know taking a cruise to or from Haiti now. I think those rich in Haiti who we never see on computer or TV screens probably make the profit. Yet a cruise liner making humanitarian aid, who can argue with that?
Linda pretty much said what I would have said. I can't imagining enjoying that trip, then or now (!) but I admire the commitment to supporting tourism in the area.
Brava to Royal Carribean. 100% of their net profits to relief? Excellent. And why are vacations always thought to be about frolic and fun? I've been to Mexico many times...wealthy areas where fun in the sun was in order, and impoverished towns that brought reflection and gratitude. xox
Or perhaps I have that backward...maybe in wealthy ports, one should reflect on one's values, and in poor areas, one should rejoice and enjoy to bring energy and help to those who struggle. xox
Seems like Haiti needs tourism. As long as it continues to be a safe port... then why not?
of course, the cruise ship companies have other controversies to contend with,

I didn't know about the cruise visiting issue. Thanks for bringing this to my attention.
Thanks for letting us all know about this Kathy.
New Buddha:
In Labadee, there are guards keeping locals out. The relaxed people you see are all tourists. As a rule, Haitians don't swim and don't lie in the sun.

In fact, when I was there in the '80s, I don't recall a store that sold bathing suits or any other beach-fun gear in Cap Haitian, the second largest city and a good two hours drive from Port-au-Prince. The one decent hotel in the city probably had a counter with one or two bathing suits. It's a seaside city and the beaches were, as you can see by Labadee, which is just outside Cap Haitian, gorgeous.

That's the size of the tourist industry.

There are some glorious beaches. White sand, turquoise sea, even some with submerged cannons not far from shore, letting you feel like pirate treasure was not far below the surface.
Kathy, interesting post. Trying times bring unusual dilemmas. It's refreshing to see that RCCL is donating its profits. But the specter of the rich partying whole the locals are in such dire need is unsettling.
For the first time ever, I find myself agreeing with a corporate PR guy. I can't poke holes in his logic. I am somewhat beguiled yet pleased.

Regardless of the urge to help Haiti in the moment, it is a very American (and developed world) fascination with using impoverished and inexpensive countries as play-places. We're perfectly happy to hole ourselves up in resorts that leave us unaffected by the reality of the enslavement of past generations that were raised there and worked there.

Just watch Dog the Bounty Hunter. A supreme example of poverty in an American paradise.
Thanks for stopping over here, Asta, very gracious of you. I tend to agree.
Please see Asta Charles' excellent piece on the same topic: Sometimes Economies Float