Could this paradise really be poor, desperate Haiti?
It has mango and almond trees, soft white sand, turquoise waters, and a perfect breeze. It looks like a secret paradise island. It feels like a secret paradise island.Skip to next paragraph
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But, actually, it's Haiti, the poorest country in the hemisphere.
Every week, up to 7,000 camcorder-toting tourists, the vast majority of them Americans, come ashore here off a Royal Caribbean cruise ship for a day of sun, sailing, volleyball tournaments, and sliding on the "world's largest" inflatable water slide.
"It's the best kept secret in the world," says Melody Hickey, from Columbus, Ohio. "Its amazing."
Haiti - usually known for its poverty and political instability - is not a typical holiday destination for the bikini-clad set.
But Labadee seems a world away.
In fact, as far as many of the tourists are concerned, Labadee actually is in a different part of the world.
"Isn't Puerto Rico part of Haiti?" asks a high school senior from Nashville, Mich., getting off the ship to get her hair braided.
"I thought we were coming to a place called Hispaniola," says Cindy Roberts from Madison, Ind., as she bargains for a voodoo bottle at the 'Native Market' set up for tourists. "But I guess it doesn't matter," she says. "So, it's Haiti."
The tourists have a good excuse for their confusion. "Welcome to Labadee!" reads the banner - emblazoned with the face of a Johnny Depp look-alike pirate - strung up on the pier.
A small wooden sign facing away from the incoming crowds reads "Labadee, Haiti." Most, however, just pass it by in the rush to the Ben & Jerry's ice cream stand.
The interactive TV monitors in the onboard cabins show the ship moving across the ocean to an Island clearly marked Haiti. But, the Royal Caribbean's website mystifies the bay as a "private," and "secret" destination. When it is labeled, they call it "Labadee, Hispaniola," in reference to the name given to the island by Christopher Columbus, who, incidentally, thought he was in China when he dropped anchor here in 1492.
The cruise line doesn't go out of its way to clear up any confusion about the actual location of its private beach.
"We make no pretense of where we are," says David Southby, Royal Caribbean's site manager for Labadee. "The real question is 'Where is Haiti?' - and 'What is Haiti?' If you are honest, even if you tell them, most passengers don't know where they are, usually."
And, referring to the island as Hispaniola and not Haiti, is merely a marketing tool, wrote Craig Milan, a senior vice president at Royal Caribbean, in an email exchange.
"It's much like we refer to our port in Bayonne, N.J., as Cape Liberty Cruise Port," he says. "We were getting the same response about not calling that port 'Bayonne Cruise Port.' "
"I used to be mad about the cruise line trying to mask the identity of Haiti," says Jean Cyril Pressoir, author of the "Guides Panorama, Haiti" tour books. "But now, I understand: We have an image problem and this is a way to get people to give the country a chance. Fair enough. We really need the tourists."
Since 1986, the Royal Caribbean line has provided the largest source of tourism revenue to Haiti. The cruise company pays the Haitian government $6 per passenger and employs about 300 locals, including security guards, beach monitors, waiters, cleaners, as well as some managers. Approximately 200 more locals find work here selling their wares, often at inflated prices, at the market stalls, or by providing entertainment.