Cruising For A Bruising?

Rum cocktails are still the order of the day on the cruise liners stopping off in Haiti. TABATHA LEGGETT asks whether we should restrict tourism at a time when Haiti needs it most?

catastrophe cruise devastation disaster Haiti

The chances are, you knew nothing about an island called Haiti last week. You were not aware that it is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, nor that there was a rebellion there in 2004, nor that it has been in a state of economic and political turmoil for the majority for the past decade, at the very least. But now, Haiti is dominating the headlines, surrounded with vocabulary like ‘devastation’, ‘catastrophe’, ‘disaster’. And what is happening in Haiti actually merits vocabulary of such extremity – this is no tabloid football report.

And now we hear that ‘Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines’ are continuing to dock ships just sixty miles away from the earthquake zone. Pampered tourists seeking a breather from the trials and tribulations of their western lifestyles are enjoying cocktails and barbeques in Labadee, which the Florida-based cruise company describes as a “picturesque wooded peninsula,” whilst victims of the earthquake are enduring the worst suffering imaginable.

Can one really enjoy rum cocktails in a hammock, knowing that just miles away earthquake victims don’t have access to clean water? Order food from waiters who may have lost family members just days before (Royal Caribbean disclosed that 200 Haitians are among the employees on their ships)? Kick back and relax, knowing that earthquake victims are lying, trapped by rubble, under buildings close by?

These questions present a horrible dilemma to those cruisers who are currently holidaying on a private beach off the coast of a devastated island. The passengers are able to enjoy water sports, all day buffets and trinket shopping at local craft markets, before returning to the guarded ship at night. But, whether they should be allowed to relax on the beaches of Haiti, given the country’s current situation, remains a highly debated topic.

John Weis, Vice President of ‘Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines’ defended the decisions made by the cruise company, claiming, “We cannot abandon Haiti now that they need us most.” Whilst it certainly seems sensible to continue spending money in Haiti in order to boost their economic situation, the question of whether cruise ships should be allowed to dock in areas where cargo ships and aid ships could potentially dock remains unanswered.

The cruise company have delivered relief supplies to the island, and it has recently been reported that the second ship to dock there will be donating spare sun loungers and beach furniture to temporary hospitals treating victims. The company has also pledged $1 million to the relief effort. Obviously, Haiti needs tourism to continue in order to bring income back into the country. But isn’t the most pressing issue right now that of saving lives, not raising profits? I’m pretty sure that whilst the people on board these ships are tipping generously and spending more money than they normally would, they’re probably not helping those who need it the most. That is: those who are dying.

If we look at the facts, it is pretty clear that docking cruise ships so close to an earthquake zone is tasteless. I accept that the cruise company has no obligation to help the earthquake victims. I accept that the cruise company has made a gesture by providing some support. However, holidaying in a country where tens of thousands of people died less than a week ago, when some bodies haven’t even been buried yet, is simply unacceptable. It’s not the ships’ passengers who are at fault here: they’ve been thrown into an impossible situation, and one that will undoubtedly cause them to feel unnecessarily guilty. It is the cruise company who misjudged a situation that only required a basic level of human kindness to dictate.

But is it really this simple? As one passenger stated on an Internet forum: “It was hard enough having to sit and eat a picnic lunch at Labadee before the quake, knowing how many Haitians were starving; I can't imagine having to choke down a burger there now.”

But that’s just it: Haiti has always been poor. The divide between the rich holiday makers and the struggling Haitian population has always existed. Great care has always been taken to shield travellers from broadening their minds just that little bit too much – they are shown the natural beauty of the Caribbean island without its accompanying poverty-stricken local reality. The effects of the earthquake have merely broadcast to the world a reality that has always been swept under the rug.
The cruise company could have given its staff time off, and continued to pay them. They could have informed their passengers that they would drop off supplies in Haiti and move on to the next stop. Simple human decency would suggest as much.

But can we really ban cruise liners at a time when the Haitian economy needs them most? Poverty exists for many reasons, but it can be alleviated by wealthy tourists. Should we treat Haiti any differently now that an earthquake has exposed the wreckage that has always been a reality?