Vacation in Haiti? Royal Caribbean's about to return

Port-au-Prince's airport terminal is shattered, electricity is off, and all services decimated, but there's still one way to get into Haiti: by sea. Royal Caribbean's Independence of the Seas is scheduled to call on the north coast three times next week, the first such visit since the quake. The port is undamaged, and the line would have returned on Friday, except it's waiting for the green light from the local government to resume its regular stops. (Update: USA Today reports the Independence of the Seas will visit Haiti as planned on Friday, and it's bringing relief supplies to be distributed by Food for the Poor.)

One of the most clever recent tactics of the cruise lines has been the creation of "private" islands and beaches scattered throughout the Caribbean. Disney Cruise Line's is in the Bahamas. Royal Caribbean, and its sister line Celebrity, have one in Haiti. It's not near the tattered capital, but on the north coast, far from the turmoil, protected by fences and cordoned off from the rest of the country by a curtain of mountains.

Ships dock on the scenic peninsula -- which Royal Caribbean has registered under the name Labadee -- in the morning at around 8 a.m., spend the day at the beach, and leave before dinner. Passengers, who are not given the papers that allow them to leave the grounds of the resort, have no contact with the surrounding country except within the tightly controlled zone around the ship. There, they make memories zip lining, para-sailing, and enjoying a newly-built aqua park.

This hermetically sealed, fantasy version of the Caribbean is secreted in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. This dichotomy has long irked some travelers as inauthentic and decadent, and the criticisms intensified by the on-board descriptions of the port, which often omitted its location in Haiti (the web-based itineraries are clear about it). But this week, this arrangement marks the only happy arrival of foreigners outside of aid workers and emergency services. Haiti needs it.

Royal Caribbean, while certainly benefiting from the low costs associated with doing business in Haiti, has a vested interest in its health and security, and it behind the scenes, it has been active in devising ways to help promote the destination. In fact, the cruise line's president, Adam Goldstein, wrote on his blog that on Wednesday that he had been scheduled to fly to President Clinton's New York offices to hold a meeting with Haiti's prime minister about how to foster increased tourism in the beleaguered nation. The horrific earthquake struck late Tuesday afternoon.

Royal Caribbean has taken its knocks for selling the fantasy of Labadee, but as Goldstein's aborted meeting proved, you can't fault the cruise line for not supporting Haitian growth. It was trying to, and at high levels, even before this calamity struck. The Haitian government makes $6 per visitor in port charges, and in addition to the some 300 Haitians the cruise line employs on the ground, another 200 people make their livings selling souvenirs and the like.

For the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, that's more than a little something. Spending the day in Labadee on a cruise ship is obviously not going to have much of a financial impact -- much of the money is funneled back to the cruise line's American accounts, and the land-based vendors are carefully chosen -- but it is a minor means of support of the sort that is available to us. It's also likely to be the only time the average American will ever have the chance to spend money on the ground in Haiti.

The cruise ship visits to the area are not the security risk you might think. By most reports, the heaviest damage is mostly localized in the Port-au-Prince area. (The Dominican Republic, Haiti's roommate on Hispaniola, has the island's main fault line, but on Wednesday it officially reported no damage, and it's business as usual at its many all-inclusive resorts in Punta Cana and La Romana.)

But do you feel comfortable lolling about on the sand with a fruity drink while a few hours' drive away, people die from thirst and bodies rot in the gutters? The tastefulness of the dilemma depends on how you view the tourist's role. For some cruisers, the arrangement was perfectly acceptable last week, when Haiti was merely a subsistence country in which 80% of the population is below the poverty level.

This week, when perhaps Haiti needs tourism dollars the most, would raising a rum runner there be considered distasteful or generous? It's a dilemma that can make you count your blessings in a new way.

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