Cruising to Haiti In a Sea of Crisis and Controversy
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
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