Royal Caribbean International’s decision to bring vacationers to its private beach in Haiti in the wake of the country’s devastating earthquake has unearthed a familiar controversy over how, and when, tourism mixes with tragedy.
The earthquake struck near Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, on a Tuesday afternoon, three days before Royal Caribbean’s 4,300-passenger Independence of the Seas was slated to call at Labadee, Royal Caribbean’s private destination since the 1980s.
The cruise line awaited word from the Haitian government on whether it should return to Labadee, which is located about 80 to 100 miles north of Port-au-Prince and was not physically affected by the earthquake.
Once Royal Caribbean got the go-ahead, it decided that the Independence would make its call as scheduled on Jan. 15, stocked with supplies to donate to the relief effort and a full ship of cruise vacationers.
The decision was met with derision in media around the world.
A story in the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper said, "Luxury liners are still docking at private beaches near Haiti’s devastated earthquake zone for holidaymakers to enjoy the water…" and "60 miles from Haiti’s devastated earthquake zone, luxury liners dock at private beaches where passengers enjoy Jet Ski rides, parasailing and rum cocktails delivered to their hammocks."
An article in a New Zealand newspaper said, "Cruise ships are disgorging tourists to relax on Haiti’s spectacular sandy beaches as the Caribbean nation struggles to cope with a devastating earthquake."
And in the U.S., late-night TV host David Letterman blasted "idiot cruise ships" for continuing to bring vacationers to Haiti.
Royal Caribbean last week defended its position, pointing to the economic benefit the cruise ships bring to Haiti and the company’s role as one of the largest foreign investors in the country.
"We feel very strongly as a company that the best thing we can do for our relationship with the Haitian people post-earthquake is to bring the ships and supplies and the economic benefit that a ship call represents to the north coast," Royal Caribbean CEO Adam Goldstein said. "Not only for the 500 or so people who work on the site and the vendors, but we know it is an economic engine for a much larger circle of people who cut into the affected area."
Goldstein was able to explain Royal Caribbean’s position in major news outlets such as USA Today and National Public Radio. (In addition, read Goldstein's comments to Travel Weekly in TW's In the Hot Seat column this week.) He also got backing from MSC Cruises USA CEO Richard Sasso, who said during a CLIA meeting last week that the criticism of Royal Caribbean "makes me sick."
"They are doing something humanitarian," he said. "What they did was correct, and our industry has been resourceful in getting humanitarian relief there."
The criticism echoed the fallout of the 2005 tsunami in the Indian Ocean that wiped out entire communities and claimed more than 200,000 lives. Beachgoers in places like Phuket, Thailand, were chastised for basking under palm trees near where so many people had died.
After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, some felt it was insensitive to stroll through Central Park while lower Manhattan smoldered.
Yet in both those instances, the local communities implored tourists to return, and to return quickly. Rudy Giuliani, who was mayor of New York when the World Trade Center was attacked, famously asked Americans who wanted to help to "come here and spend money. Go to a restaurant, see a show."
And after the tsunami hit, then-secretary general of the U.N.’s World Tourism Organization, Francesco Frangialli, said that a "double disaster" would strike the affected Indian Ocean nations if tourists stayed away.
A major difference between Haiti and those destinations is that Haiti is not nearly as dependent on tourism as New York and the Indian Ocean nations are. Royal Caribbean ships account for the vast majority of Haiti’s tourists. So whether or not people criticize Royal Caribbean for resuming its operations in Haiti too soon, the company could soon be hailed as a model in helping its recovery.
As the World Tourism Organization said in a statement about the earthquake, "tourism can become a useful instrument for the necessary reconstruction process."
And Royal Caribbean has had support in the press, as well.
In a discussion of whether the line should call in Haiti, an anchor on "ABC World News" said, "In defense of the cruise line, they are bringing in water supplies and cots, and it’s 85 miles from Port-au-Prince. It’s not like the earthquake victims are just a few yards away. … They are bringing millions of dollars to a country that absolutely needs it more than ever."
On a poll on the cruise-focused website CruiseCritic.com, 65% of readers supported Royal Caribbean’s decision. And a report on TravelWeekly.com headlined "RCCL to resume Labadee calls, loaded with relief supplies" garnered mostly positive comments from readers.
Goldstein said he was not surprised by the controversy.
"It is impossible that there would be a complete consensus on the right way to act in these circumstances," he said. "Our goal continues to be to educate everyone that we can that our activity is very beneficial to the Haitian people; that it is the outgrowth of 30-year relationship; that the government wants us to be there; that we are landing a significant amount of relief supplies."
Goldstein said that while some people "feel very much the incongruity of guests enjoying themselves on one hand with people suffering on the other," he explained that "our feeling about the ships being in Haiti is that at least this way a vacation activity can contribute to the relief effort and the recovery, whereas a vacation experience elsewhere cannot."
As for the passengers, Goldstein said the captain of the Independence was given a standing ovation by passengers when he told them they were going to Labadee and would bring supplies.
He said reports indicated that while in Labadee, passengers seemed to be spending more, knowing that 100% of the proceeds from the stop went to the Haitian relief effort.