Three days after the earthquake in Haiti, Royal Caribbean (RCL) sent one of its cruise ships, the "Independence of the Seas," to Labadee, a privately owned Haitian beach. The move, which created an uncomfortable juxtaposition between starving, dying Haitians and well-fed vacationers, has caused many to question the cruise line and its relationship to its Caribbean ports of call.But many commentators agree with Royal Caribbean's decision, noting that Labadee is over 85 miles from Port Au Prince and has little or no contact with the rest of Haiti. One commentator, Fox television's Vince Dementri, noted that "I've actually been there ... It is a little bit of a distance from Haiti. It's not like you can walk from Labadee into Haiti."
Northern End Of The Island
Actually, Labadee isn't "a distance from Haiti." It's on the northern end of the island, and you can walk to the rest of Haiti from there. In fact, it is only six miles from Cap Haitien, a city with more than 180,000 people.
But Dementri's confusion is understandable: the road from Labadee to Cap Haitien follows a twisty path through dense Haitian jungle, and the Royal Caribbean compound is fenced off from the rest of the island. While a determined passenger from a boat could probably make it to the town, chances are that Haitians looking to visit the cruise line's private beach would be turned away by the armed guards who patrol the perimeter of the Labadee compound.
To be completely honest, the distance between Labadee and Port au Prince is actually even further than Royal Caribbean apologists have suggested. As the crow files, it's 85 miles; by road, it's more like 130 miles. And, as far as the average Haitian is concerned, it might as well be on the moon. Labadee's little piece of paradise is completely isolated from the rest of the island, and its 230 workers are carefully culled from the millions of Haiti's citizens.
Largely Self-Sufficient Resort
This is the heart of Haiti -- and Royal Caribbean's -- problem. The cruise line says that, by continuing service to Labadee, it is pouring money into the economy. In truth, however, the resort is almost completely self-sufficient: Its food comes from the cruise ships and the so-called "straw market" where passengers can buy trinkets from the natives is staffed with people chosen by the cruise line. In fact, the entire operation is designed to minimize passenger contact with actual Haitians, while ensuring that Royal Caribbean captures as many tourist dollars as possible.
In supporting its decision to continue service to Labadee, Royal Caribbean has tried to suggest that it has only two choices: It can either offer subsistence-level jobs to 500 Haitians, or it can give nothing to the island.
But there is clearly a third option: In addition to operating a distant, isolated beach resort, Royal Caribbean could also give its customers access to some of the real Haiti. Nearby Cap Haitien, for example, was Christopher Columbus's second landing spot in the new world, and his first landfall was also on the northern end of Haiti.
Historical Landmarks, Beautiful Beaches
The rest of the country is filled with historical landmarks, beautiful beaches, and other areas where tourists could experience authentic Caribbean culture. And it's not like Royal Caribbean doesn't already visit other cities in the islands: on Liberty of the Seas cruises, for example, the company's ships dock at Labadee as well as Philipsburg, St. Maarten and San Juan, Puerto Rico.
In some ways, Royal Caribbean's involvement with Labadee has put it on the hot seat for a problem that is endemic in the Caribbean. Several cruise lines, including Disney, Holland America and Princess, own or lease private beaches and islands. But, if the Labadee issue brings attention to this relationship, perhaps Royal Caribbean will -- finally -- bring some real benefit to Haiti.
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