In the weeks since the Jan. 12 earthquake that leveled Port-au-Prince, cruise ships full of mostly American tourists have continued to dock in Labadee, a private resort 60 miles north of Haiti's devastated capital city. "It was a bit surreal knowing that the center of the world's focus was only 100 miles away," says passenger Becky O'Connor, who visited the island on a recent cruise. On the television in her stateroom, Fox News broadcast the first airdrops over Port-au-Prince amid a background of apocalypse. Off the side of her balcony, she could see aid supplies—water, powdered milk, dried beans—being unloaded onto the pier and piled into trucks. But surrounding her and the other 3,000 or so passengers who had booked mid-January cruises on Royal Caribbean International (the only cruise line with a port in Haiti) were all the amenities one would expect of a luxury vacation. On board: 17 decks' worth of buffets, swimming pools, casinos, miniature golf, and a 1,200-seat theater. Ashore: a Dis-neyesque pseudotown with pristine beaches, lovely cabanas, and quaint cafés and shops.
At first, passengers were uneasy about the visit—mulling over safety concerns and discussing among themselves the ethical quandary of so much wealth and luxury amid such devastation. But by midday, most had overcome their reservations and were venturing ashore. "The idea to relax so close to the death and destruction was definitely awkward," says Daniel Melleby, another passenger. "But it became clear pretty quickly that the people there were very happy and relieved to see us."
While many have criticized the cruise line's decision to proceed with planned trips to the Haiti port just days after the quake, many more have argued that canceling scheduled stops would only hurt the already struggling Haitian economy. The passengers themselves have held both views. Some note surges of pride as they watched pallets of supplies being unloaded from the cruise ship, others say they spent more on local wares than they normally would have, and most describe the stop as more somber than others along the same route. "I believe it was the right decision to support Haiti financially," says one passenger, who gave her name only as Linda. "But I could not bring myself to enjoy anything on Labadee." The ambivalence underscores what some say is a persistent, if not always obvious, uneasiness between wealthy vacationers and the struggling countries they like to frequent.
Labadee—a former slave plantation on the northern coast of Haiti, named for the Frenchman who settled it in 1600—is the only Haitian port open to cruise ships. In 1986 Royal Caribbean International leased the spot from the Haitian government and transformed it into a pri-vate resort, one of several stops along its Caribbean route. Last year, at the urging of President Bill Clinton, who traveled to Labadee to promote tourism in the region, the company spent $55 million upgrading the port to accommodate its newest fleet member, Oasis of the Seas, the world's largest passenger ship. The company made Labadee the ship's maiden destination.
After the earthquake, the Haitian government urged Royal Caribbean to proceed with its scheduled stops on the island. The company complied, and on Jan. 15 delivered nearly 40 pallets of food and water, along with roughly 3,000 tourists, who spent at least some of their money stimulating the local economy. More ships followed on the 18, 19, and 22; so far, the cruise line has brought nearly 400 pallets of ur-gently needed goods ashore. In addition, the company promised to donate all money made at the Labadee resort to the relief effort, at least until Feb. 1. Combined with passenger donations, they expect to reach $2 million in contributions. Royal Caribbean has also augmented an existing crew-welfare fund to provide up to $2,500 in grant money to any Haitian employee seeking to rebuild homes or find loved ones. Compassion leave has been extended from two weeks to indefinitely. But while no one disputes the value of sending food, water, and cash donations in the wake of a disaster, larger questions—about whether the company and its policies are the best option for Haiti—persist.
To be sure, Royal Caribbean is among Haiti's largest foreign investors. According to the company, it employs 200 locals at Labadee and allows another 300 to sell their wares on the premises. They also pay the Haitian government a "head tax" of $6 per tourist. With roughly 365,000 tourists visiting the site each year, that adds up to slightly more than $2 million in revenue for the beleaguered country, whose 2008 GDP was estimated at $6.9 billion. But critics say that a nonprivatized port could yield far more in publicity and profits for the local community. The tiny peninsula is currently sequestered from the surrounding area by a 10-foot-high fence and a private armed security force; passengers are not allowed to leave the property. And because the company owns all the restaurants and concession stations, most payments for food and beverages are made not in cash, but via room keys or cruise cards, which means no tips for employees.
Royal Caribbean is not the only company to turn a chunk of foreign land into a private tourist spot. Disney, Princess, and Norwegian Cruises have each claimed various segments of beach in the Bahamas. Once bought or leased, experts say these tracts of land are typically recast as private beaches and staffed by private work-forces. "Unlike other port calls, on a private island [or in a private port like Labadee] the revenues and profits remain largely with the cruise line," says Ross Klein, a sociologist who has written three books about the cruise industry. "While it's quite profitable to the cruise line, the benefit to the local economy is relatively small and very limited."
The cruise industry in general has been subject to a rash of criticism over the years, for unfair labor practices, dismal environmental records, and shoddy safety practices. But Royal Caribbean has come under special criticism for its policies in Haiti. Labadee, with its high fences and armed guards, is far more closed off to the surrounding community than other resorts like it. And, as The Christian Science Monitor reported, advertisements for the port tend to avoid any mention of Haiti, describing it as a private island rather than as a peninsula contiguous with the rest of the country.
Given the scale of the current disaster, some passengers feel the company's contributions to the relief effort did not go far enough: "These ships hold thousands of customers and crew. They often have five different buffets at a time and huge amounts of food are wasted," writes one woman—who visited the port with her family last year—on an Internet listserv. "If Royal shut down just one eating option per boat and donated all the food, they could feed hundreds."
Still, most passengers and cruise enthusiasts seem to support Royal Caribbean's decisions: a company representative said that 85 percent of guests who docked at Labadee ultimately went ashore. And in a survey of some 4,700 people done by the Web site Cruise Critic, two thirds of respondents agreed with the company's decision to proceed with scheduled cruises. After all, as many have pointed out, Haiti was no oasis before the earthquake hit.