Saturday 23 January 2010

Should cruise ships continue docking in Haiti?

About 160 kilometres directly north of the devastated and despairing city of Port-au-Prince that was destroyed by an earthquake and where thousands of Haitians died, passengers on luxury cruise liners are still offered the chance to enjoy a barbecue on a private Haitian beach at Labadee, as well as parasailing, swimming and snorkeling.

The decision to continue docking liners at Haitian beaches has prompted some people to accuse Royal Caribbean International (who own and operate the cruise ships) of insensitivity to the plight of earthquake victims. The cruise company, on the contrary, says it is providing Haiti with positive economic benefits in a time of desperate need and has pledged to help with relief efforts and is donating $1-million for aid. In the meantime, the ships keep coming. The Independence of the Seas, a liner with a capacity of more than 3,000 passengers and equipped with a nine-hole miniature golf course, a casino and an ice rink, docked on January 15th, 2010 at Labadee, a heavily guarded private resort with beautiful beaches and sparkling turquoise waters. Navigator of the Seas docked on January 18th 2010, Liberty of the Seas further in the week and Celebrity Solstice docked there on January 22nd, 2010.

Many people are outraged that cruise ships would still dock in Haiti considering that all the time their passengers are enjoying the benefits of vacationing in Haiti, thousands upon thousands of Haitians are in desperate need of food, water, shelter and medical aid and are still pulling bodies out of collapsed buildings. One person on one of the cruise ships posted on the bulletin board, “Never mind RCI being an important source of income for Labadee, it is pure common decency that should prevent passengers disembarking while they are still pulling bodies out of collapsed buildings.” Another passenger posted, “To me it's like going to a funeral and singing and dancing around the casket.”

There are factors that these people are ignoring. First of all, it is extremely difficult for a cruise ship to abandon its destination considering the fact that its passengers have paid a great deal of money to take the cruise. Secondly, Royal Caribbean International has in the past, contributed the largest part of tourist revenue to Haiti. Thirdly, the passengers are not disembarking the ship to wander about in the immediate area of where the devastation and suffering is. Fourthly, the company announced last week that it will be providing at least $1-million in humanitarian aid to Haiti.

Should cruise ships also refuse to stop in the Dominican Republic which is on the same island? If there was an earthquake in California, should Canadians refuse to visit New York? At what point during a disaster, does everything stop?

I believe that Royal Caribbean International said it best when its spokeswoman, Cynthia Martinez responded by email with respect to the suggestions that the cruise line was being insensitive. She wrote; "We are very sensitive to the idea of delivering a vacation experience so close to the epicenter of the earthquake, and we appreciate that many guests might feel the same way, However, given the terrible economic and social challenges Haiti now faces, they need the positive economic benefits now more than ever."

The company's pledge to help relief efforts has many supporting its decision to continue calling on the exclusive island destination. According to a Cruise Critic poll this weekend, about 66% of 4,000 who voted agreed it was a good decision by Royal Caribbean as the ships and passengers were bringing in money and aid. Only 20% said the move was in poor taste.

All cruise ships offer excursions on their cruises and many of the excursions visit the capitals of the countries they visit. I am sure that there was an excursion planned for a visit to Port du Prince but as soon as the cruise company learned of the devastating earthquake in Port du Prince, the excursion was cancelled. To have gone ahead with the excursion would have been in very bad taste. Those passengers who sun themselves and swim at the Haitian beach at Labadee have no reason to be ashamed at being there. I am sure that many of them have probably accepted the suggestion of their cruise ship captains to donate some money towards the efforts being undertaken to improve the wellbeing of the thousands of Haitians that have suffered from this terrible disaster.

In response to the media criticism of cruise passengers wining and dining while quake survivors fight for scraps of food just a few miles away, Royal Caribbean president and CEO Adam Goldstein fired back in his blog in which he wrote;

"My view is this -- it isn't better to replace a visit to Labadee ... with a visit to another destination for a vacation. Being on the island and generating economic activity for the straw market vendors, the hair-braiders and our 230 employees (Haitians working at Labadee) helps with relief while being somewhere else does not help," he wrote. "People enjoying themselves is what we do. People enjoying themselves in Labadee helps with relief. We support our guests who choose to help in this way, which is consistent with our nearly 30-year history in Haiti." unquote

Royal Caribbean said that it will contribute 100% of its net revenue from the destination to the relief effort, delivering goods and supplies such as rice, dried beans, powdered milk, water and canned goods. When the supplies arrive in Labadee, they will be distributed by long-time partner Food for the Poor from an off-site location. The cruise line has acted as a responsible corporate citizen. They and their passengers have done nothing to be ashamed of.

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