Is Royal Caribbean Doing the Right Thing in Haiti?

Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines Ltd. (RCL) is taking some grief for continuing to send boats to Labadee, its private beach on the north coast of Haiti, even as the country recovers from a devastating earthquake that killed tens of thousands and left the capital city Port-au-Prince in ruins. But it's not at all clear that the cruise ship operator is in the wrong.Royal Caribbean's "Independence of the Seas" ship was the first to return last Friday, just three days after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck the capital Port-au-Prince, with three more ships scheduled to stop at Labadee this week. Critics claim that the timing of the ship's visit was disrespectful to the memories of the tens of thousands of people who perished during the quake. The port call was part of a $1 million relief effort.

But some of the controversy appears to have been overblown. Media reports quoted posts on Cruise Critic, a consumer site, critical of Royal Caribbean. Most readers of the site -- 65 percent of those from the U.S. and U.K. -- supported the company's decision and 14 percent were on the fence. Nonetheless, PR experts quoted by Advertising Age were uniform in their condemnation of Royal Caribbean.

"The symbolism and optics of a big white ship sitting right off the beach and people playing were very damaging to the brand, and they have to be prepared for medium to longer-term damage." Paul Gallagher, managing director of Burson Marsteller's issues and advocacy practice, told the trade publication. Another unnamed executive called it a "massive debacle."

But Royal Caribbean was in a no-win situation. Cruise ships are not military vessels, though they obviously are able to carry supplies to areas hurt by natural disasters. Abandoning Labadee would have made an awful situation even worse.

Haiti, which is in dire need of everything, especially needs to keep its people working. Royal Caribbean employs 230 Haitians at Labadee, which it recently spent $55 million upgrading. Another 300 work at a straw market, mainly selling Haitian crafts to tourists. Former U.S. President and current UN Special Envoy for Haiti Bill Clinton visited in October. Labadee, which the Miami-based company has operated for about 30 years, is located about 85 miles from Port-au-Prince and was not damaged by the earthquake. Without the tourists, the workers at Labadee would face the abject poverty of many of their countrymen.

"Personally, I think it's a good idea," says Cheryl Carter, a professor of travel and tourism at Florida International University who has been to Labadee, in an interview with DailyFinance. "They need every job they can get on the island."

And everywhere else in Haiti for that matter.

In an email interview, former New York Times reporter Garry Pierre-Pierre, founder and editor of the English language Haitian Times newspaper, tells DailyFinance that he understands why people may be uneasy about cruise ships docking in Haiti. He has "mixed feelings" about it as well.

"On the one hand, the people need the money and life has to go on." says Pierre-Pierre, who is in Haiti. "The key is were the passengers respectful and solemn, if so, i don't have a problem with it."

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