Cruising Through Catastrophe? The Rights and Wrongs of a Holiday in Haiti

Over a week after the earthquake that devastated Haiti, the capital Port-au-Prince is still struggling to get back on its feet. But 130 kilometers to the north, at Haiti's holiday paradise of Labadee, tourists continue to bask in the sun. But is that so terrible?

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The footage on YouTube looks idyllic: A fair-haired woman slips into the clear blue water while a dazzling white luxury cruise ship, brimming with comforts, floats nearby.

It is the stuff that holiday-makers' dreams are made of. Caribbean beaches, a private peninsula described as "breath-taking" by the US tourism company Royal Caribbean International (RCI), which leases the area.

But this isn't your typical holiday paradise, this is the resort of Labadee and it lies in northern Haiti, a country struggling to get back on its feet after last week's devastating earthquake. Large parts of the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince were destroyed and some 200,000 people are thought to have lost their lives. But at the Labadee resort (near Cap-Haïtien on the map at left), it's business as usual.

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Photo Gallery: Sun, Sea and Suffering

As recently as Wednesday afternoon, Haiti was rattled by a strong magnitude 6.1 aftershock. But the cruise lines nevertheless decided not to reschedule their cruises. "We are in constant contact with the authorities," Tom Fecke, the head of RCI in Germany, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "If there is any risk associated with docking our ships, we will reconsider."

The northern coast has thus far been spared by the temblors. It has also long been spared contact with Haiti's grinding poverty. High fences and armed security guards ensure the holiday makers can snorkel and sunbathe undisturbed.

Fecke says the company stands by its decision to continue operations in Labadee despite the natural disaster. "If we pulled out of Haiti, we would be far less help to the country." The firm has leased the secluded peninsula for 30 years and has created 500 jobs over that time. RCI pays a levy of $6 for every tourist who disembarks on Labadee.

More than 900,000 holiday-makers visit Haiti every year and two thirds of them arrive by cruise ship. Every week, several RCI ocean liners dock at Labadee. On Monday the Navigator of the Seas anchored there, followed, on Tuesday, by the Liberty of the Seas. If everything goes as planned, the Celebrity Solstice will arrive at the harbor on Friday. According to CEO Richard Fain, RCI has transported half a million tourists to the destination each year -- and that figure is rising.

A Standing Ovation

Even former US President Bill Clinton, the UN's special envoy for Haiti, visited the peninsula in October 2009. And local support for tourism is strong: Even government officials have asked RCI not to abandon the region, Fecke says. Late last week, Leslie Voltaire, an emissary of the Haitian government to the UN, praised the "positive economic benefits" of cruise ships.

Those economic benefits become particularly clear when cruise companies make direct donations to the Haitian aid effort. The global head of RCI, Adam Goldstein, pledged $1 million (€707,000) for the stricken country. Passengers aboard the luxury liner Independence of the Sea responded to news of the donation with a standing ovation, Goldstein proudly informed the TV station, Fox Business Network. Travelers aboard the cruise ship were also willing to dig deep into their pockets to support the cause, Germany's Managing Director Fecke said, adding, "all the revenue that we make on board during the stay in Haiti will be donated."

RCI says its five luxury liners bring not only tourists from Florida to Labadee, but also much-needed supplies for victims of the quake. In collaboration with the aid agency Food For The Poor, its liners transport basics including rice and beans, water and bandages to Port-au-Prince. "We have created a bridge between Miami and Haiti," said Fecke.

"A Win-Win Situation"

But not everyone approves of the cruise line's policy. Many comments on Internet forums call into question the decision to carry on with "business as usual" during a humanitarian catastrophe, arguing it smacks of dishonesty, cynicism and insensitivity.

And some cruise passengers are also dismayed by the idea of holidays in a disaster zone. One blog by a RCI passenger argued that it was inconceivable to lie on the beach in the sun, play in the water or sip a cocktail, while "tens of thousands of dead are piled in the streets and survivors fight for food and water."

Nobody wants to carry their loved ones to the grave, under the watchful eye of a gaggle of holiday makers, argued one blogger, identified as Kengai, on the "Cruise Critic" Web site. But he said that passengers staying aboard their cruise ship in Haiti was even worse: 'Then I would feel even more helpless, so close and yet not able to help ... RCI should continue traveling to Haiti -- but not right now."

But bookings do not indicate a high level of customer concern. Despite a few cancellations, "there is no question of a wave of cancellations among German passengers," said Fecke.

The cruise-portal "Cruise Critic" conducted an online survey on the subject. Of 4,700 English-speaking participants, 67 percent said that stops in the port of Labadee should continue and should deliver relief supplies. A "Cruise Critic" user named Liberty Lover wrote on the blog that he had witnessed fleet captains distributing food to the needy. "It's a win-win situation for everyone involved," he wrote.

'We Are Committed to Help'

Should all major travel companies working in troubled regions assist humanitarian missions to justify their continued business operations? Fecke hesitates. "Haiti is part of our company, we are obliged to help," he says. Many attractive tourist destinations lie in areas beset by poverty. And it is important to support these parts of the world, he said. "Therefore, tourism businesses should always involve local people in their work."

Thomas Wilde is the head of the PR agency Wilde and Partners, which represents RCI in Germany. Would the decision to keep its cruise ships arriving in Haiti boost the company's reputation? "No one in our company is running around with dollar signs in their eyes, nor are they advocating for more humanitarian campaigns from within the tourism industry," Wilde says, adding that RCI is trying to maintain a kind of normality on the ground, despite the difficult circumstances.

"When tourists stay away, people lose their jobs. That is the case in Haiti, as in Thailand, Sri Lanka or Mumbai," he says, adding that the victims of a catastrophe have been punished enough already. "Leaving them alone in such hard times would not send out a good message." However, he stressed that the decision to book a trip ultimately lies with the customer: "This is an ethical issue, and everyone has to decide for themselves."

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