The Florida cruise company leases a picturesque wooded peninsula and its five pristine beaches from the government for passengers to "cut loose" with watersports, barbecues, and shopping for trinkets at a craft market before returning on board before dusk. Safety is guaranteed by armed guards at the gate.When these people booked the cruise, did they not realize that their itinerary included a stopover in one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere? There was untold misery before the quake, and since the quake, all those problems are magnified. The amount of food that ships take on board for their cruises is staggering, and the gluttony is a selling point - the ability to have all kinds of quality food at any hour of the day is a selling point - and yet the ships stopped at Labadee for years without news reports questioning the fact that just beyond the gates, there were people who suffered from malnutrition and a lack of basic services and infrastructure.
The decision to go ahead with the visit has divided passengers. The ships carry some food aid, and the cruise line has pledged to donate all proceeds from the visit to help stricken Haitians. But many passengers will stay aboard when they dock; one said he was "sickened".
"I just can't see myself sunning on the beach, playing in the water, eating a barbecue, and enjoying a cocktail while [in Port-au-Prince] there are tens of thousands of dead people being piled up on the streets, with the survivors stunned and looking for food and water," one passenger wrote on the Cruise Critic internet forum.
"It was hard enough to sit and eat a picnic lunch at Labadee before the quake, knowing how many Haitians were starving," said another. "I can't imagine having to choke down a burger there now.''
Some booked on ships scheduled to stop at Labadee are afraid that desperate people might breach the resort's 12ft high fences to get food and drink, but others seemed determined to enjoy their holiday."I'll be there on Tuesday and I plan on enjoying my zip line excursion as well as the time on the beach," said one.
The company said the question of whether to "deliver a vacation experience so close to the epicentre of an earthquake" had been subject to considerable internal debate before it decided to include Haiti in its itineraries for the coming weeks.
"In the end, Labadee is critical to Haiti's recovery; hundreds of people rely on Labadee for their livelihood," said John Weis, vice-president. "In our conversations with the UN special envoy of the government of Haiti, Leslie Voltaire, he notes that Haiti will benefit from the revenues that are generated from each call …
The cruise ships routinely make stops at locales that are home to crushing poverty on a regular basis; they're often called exotic stops - Carnival's itinerary specifically calls the cruise I took last year an exotic Western Caribbean cruise; Belize and Honduras (Isla Roatan), along with Cozumel and Grand Cayman. While the dock areas (which happen to be gated in Honduras and Belize) at all the stops had the usual assortment of Diamonds International and Tanzanite International and all the other tourist trap merchants, the moment you drove away from those areas in Belize and Isla Roatan (and even on the mainland of Mexico in the Yucatan), the poverty was all too present. As I wrote:
Belize was our next destination, and we had to tender into Belize City, which took 20+ minutes on tender because the seas are so shallow. The waters themselves were gorgeous, but Belize is perhaps the poorest place I've ever visited. We took the Altun Ha/Belize City tour, and it was simultaneously depressing and educational. These people live in conditions that would make most people blanch - and much of it is due to the fact that most residents live near the coast and most live at or just below sea level, which means that when the inevitable storms roll in, much of the area gets wiped out. The cruise lines have a secured docking area, but many of the Belize City residents don't benefit from the cruises nearly as much as you would think or hope for.
It was hard not to notice, and one could only hope that some of the money from our port of call made its way to the rest of the country - as a source of employment and for economic development.
Sadly, that's not always the case and the money doesn't go much beyond those gates and those tour operators and their employees. It's a troubling situation to say the least, even before the quake, but now that the quake has hit, any money that can come into the country is needed and the cruise ships shouldn't just stay away because that means that those working for the tourist areas would find themselves without jobs at a time when that money s critical to getting by. If a few hundred people are able to have jobs as a result of the cruise ships coming in, that's hundreds of jobs that would disappear if the ships stayed away for any length of time.
If anything, the ships that do stop should make a point to maximize the amount of food, water and equipment, that they bring to the island for distribution; it's the least they can do. These ships are in a unique position to make a difference for the better. Best that they not squander that opportunity.