Beginning with the 4,370-berth Independence of the Seas on Jan. 15, four Royal Caribbean cruise boats and more than 15,000 passengers have ported at the company’s Labadee resort in Haiti, just 60 miles from the beleaguered country's capital, Port-au-Prince, where an estimated 200,000 lay dead and 250,000 injured.
At Labadee, cruise ship passengers can ride a zip line or roller coaster, snorkel or kayak in the turquoise water, or sunbathe on the sparkling white sand – even while hundreds of thousands of Haitians go without food, water, or shelter nearby.
As the Christian Science Monitor reported in 2006, many cruise-ship visitors to Labadee don't even know they're on 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.
For those who do want to cancel their cruise to the ravaged island, however, you’ll still have to notify the company 70 days prior to your sailing date.
“Our regular cancellation policies still apply,” says Royal Caribbean spokesperson Cynthia Martinez.
That isn’t palatable to every passenger.
“I just can't see myself sunning on the beach, playing in the water, eating a b-b-q lunch, and enjoying a cocktail while a 100 miles away, there are tens of thousands of dead people being piled up on the streets, with the survivors stunned and looking for food and water,” a cruise passenger said on the internet forum Cruise Critic.
But Ms. Martinez disputes that passengers are divided over the decision to continue cruises or that any felt “sickened” by the decision, as The Guardian reported. She says more than 85 percent of the passengers from the first two cruise ships disembarked on Labadee.
“Those numbers speak to the fact that guests are OK with it,” she said in a telephone interview Friday from Royal Caribbean’s Miami headquarters.
Martinez says Royal Caribbean continues to port at the peninsula resort at the behest of the Haitian government. “We welcome the continuation of the positive economic benefits that the cruise ship calls to Labadee contribute to our country,” Leslie Voltaire, Haiti’s special envoy to the United Nations, is quoted saying a company press release.
“We’re very sensitive to the idea of delivering a vacation experience so close to the earthquake zone,” Martinez says. “[But Haitians] really need this positive economic benefit.”
The cruise boats have delivered 120 pallets of supplies to the island since the earthquake hit on Jan. 12, which Martinez says is the equivalent of six semi-trucks of rice, dried beans, powdered milk, water, and canned goods. The non-profit Food for the Poor is in turn retrieving the supplies from the resort and delivering them. Royal Caribbean is also donating $2 million to the relief effort along with all current revenues from the Labadee resort. The first three post-earthquake cruises brought in $110,000.
“We went to Haiti because it was the right thing to do,” Martinez says, explaining that the company has a 30-year relationship with the island and is one of its biggest investors. The Labadee resort employs 230 Haitians and provides incomes to several hundred more who earn tips and sell wares at the resort’s market, she says. “You don’t desert your friends when they need you the most.”
Not all agree, and many see the resort as a gross juxtaposition to one of the worst natural disasters the United Nations has ever dealt with.
“While I agree it is my duty to share my blessings, I do not think I should do it by waving my blessings in the face of people experiencing an enormous tragedy,” said another person on the Cruise Critic forum.
But merely switching one’s vacation to another beach misses the point, says Harvard University philosophy professor Thomas Scanlon, Jr., an expert on morality, who argues that what matters now is helping the earthquake victims, from wherever that may be.
“Not doing so – simply turning one's back on the need – is morally objectionable,” he wrote in an e-mail. “But doing so while on the beach in Haiti is no worse than doing so while on the beach in Nassau, and shifting your vacation plans from the former to the latter does no one any good. If anything, it suggests a desire not to be bothered by the distressing thought of how bad things are for the earthquake victims.”