Haiti: All hands on deck, not business as usual

by Charlie Leocha on January 28, 2010


Editor’s note: We have had plenty of comments about Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines’ (RCCL) decision to go forward on schedule with visits to Labadee. Ned Levi came forward with a story supporting the efforts. Janice Hough offered her thoughts on the issue. Now, we hear from a non-profit the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST), that disagrees with RCCL’s decision to go forward with their stops in Labadee. Here is their statement.

Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines’ decision to go forward on schedule with visits to Labadee, its private peninsula in Haiti, is more than a colossal public relations faux pas. It is also an unsound tool for economic recovery. The Center for Responsible Travel (CREST) strongly disagrees with both Royal Caribbean officials and some tourism experts quoted in the press who contend that resuming cruise tourism is “critical to Haiti’s recovery.”

This is a time for all hands on deck, not business as usual.

The unsightly image of thousands of cruise passengers lounging on beaches, sipping margaritas, and shopping for trinkets while being heavily guarded by Haitian forces hardly looks like a recipe for economic recovery. If anything, the humanitarian crisis is worsening — the January 27 New York Times describes Haiti as a “world of unfathomable chaos” – and security forces are desperately needed to protect relief supplies and distribution of food and water.

Royal Caribbean has shown that it’s not totally off course. It offloaded some food donations along with cruise passengers and pledged to provide $1M in aid and 100% of the net from its visits to Haiti. But it could do and should do much more. The cruise industry has long been one of the most profitable sectors of the tourism industry. Royal Caribbean recently invested $55M to turn Labadee into a luxury playground and launched the world’s largest and most expensive cruise ship ever built — the $1.4 billion, 5400 passenger Oasis of the Seas – whose itinerary includes Haiti.

A more robust Royal Caribbean response to Haiti’s humanitarian catastrophe might include:

1. Dedicate several of its ships to ferry food, medicine and other supplies and relief workers (but not vacationers) from the U.S. and help take the strain off the Port-au-Prince l airport.
2. Use one or more cruise ships as shelter for Haitian refugees, as a hospital for the injured and sick, or as housing for the thousands of relief, security, and development workers pouring into the country. (There is a precedent: A cruise ship was used to house evacuees from New Orleans after Katrina.)
3. Use Labadee and its facilities to house (in tents or other temporary shelters) displaced Haitians who have lost their homes, livelihoods, and loved ones.
4. Purchase Haitian crafts from the Labadee vendors and sell them in the U.S. – and donate these funds to the relief efforts. (Royal Caribbean says that scores of craft vendors are dependent on sales to its cruise passengers.)
5. Keep the several hundred Haitians said to rely on Labadee for their livelihoods on payroll until it is appropriate to resume cruise visits.

The UN’s World Tourism Organization says tourism can be “a useful instrument” for the “reconstruction process in Haiti” – but some forms of tourism are far more beneficial than cruise tourism. According to the Caribbean Tourism Organization, the number of cruise and stayover tourists visiting the Caribbean is roughly the same, yet stayover travelers spend 13 times more in-country than cruise passenger and governments in the Caribbean receive 800% more in taxes from stayover tourists than from cruise passengers. Similarly, CREST’s field studies of various ports of call found that cruise visitors on day trips put far less into the local economy than do stayover travelers by a ratio of about 15 to 1 and countries overall earn far more from land-based tourism than from cruise tourism. (The studies are available at: http://www.responsibletravel.org/resources/reports.html.)

Yes, there is an opportunity for tourism to be one of the tools for reconstruction and sustainable development in Haiti, but that will come when immediate needs are met, order is restored, and rebuilding begins. Tourism should be done in Haiti in ways that provide well paying jobs, build on the country’s natural and cultural assets, stimulate locally owned businesses, and create many and diverse linkages within the island’s overall economy.

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  • vacationagent

    The name Center for Responsible Travel certainly sounds good but they’ve missed the mark on this by downplaying, denigrating, and ridiculing RCCL’s very large corporate committment to Haiti and the company’s assistance in the relief effort. RCCL’s fleet makes regular stops at Labadee and in the course of those stops they are delivering much needed humanitarian aid that they are coordinating distribution of with the UN and the US military.

    As for the precedent of cruise ships housing Katrina refugees – the U.S. government contracted with Carnival for those cabins but there weren’t acutally refugees aboard.

    As for CREST’s denigrating the economic impact of the daytrippers on cruise ships – CREST needs a reality check. Haiti doesn’t have a tourism industry. Instead of throwing stones at RCCL for doing what they are doing (which by any estimation is significant), why don’t they look beyond the surface and find out why Haiti doesn’t have substantial tourist facilities? Maybe they’d like to ask Four Seasons (or some other) why they don’t build a resort there. The Haitian guards were at Labadee long before the earthquake, by the way. It is also my understanding that RCCL is assisting in finding/helping their Haitian workers who were in country at the time of the earthquake.

    Out of personal curiosity, I would like to know how many CREST members have ever set foot in Haiti for tourism purposes.

  • http://www.singleparenttravel.net John Frenaye

    Are they serious? So because of a disaster in a country where they maintain a port, because they call on the port, they are expected to give up several ships to a)shuttle people and supplies and b)house the injured?

    YEs, CCL offered up a ship–one that was scheduled to go into drydock for a retrofit.

    But RCCL is a business and with their new ship, they need to remain profitable so they can continue to call on Labadee. If they did as CREST suggests, they would risk serious financial consequences.

    RCCL is a socially conscious business and they are doing a lot more for Haiti than other cruise lines. What have the airlines that fly into there done?

    The response from CREST is absurd!

  • SpotLight

    RCCL is not a charity and anything they do or have done for Haiti is a voluntary gift and should be applauded.

    CREST is a 501c3 charity and they claim to be “an instrument for biodiversity conservation and poverty alleviation.” However, not one of their “projects” has ever had anything to do with Haiti.

    This is a tax exempt liberal operation that is do what I say and not what I do. In 2008 they took in $929,000 and spent $703,000 which included $236,000 for salaries and benefits. It is an exercise for the reader of their Federal tax return to determine if their good works are nothing more than free paid travel “to assess”, “to encourage”, and “market.”

    I suggest CREST have their supporters donate their personal automobiles for transportation in Haiti and bring Haitian refugees to stay with them in their private residences.

  • Joel Wechsler

    I am always suspicious of groups like this. Who funds them and what are their credentials. The name sounds good but what’s the real story? I agree wholeheartedly with the above comments. Where does CREST propose that RCCL land all the aid? The port of Port-au-Prince is in worse shape than the airport and is having difficulty dealing with ships trying to unload there without RCCL adding to the confusion. There aren’t appropriate facilities at Labadee for large scale cargo traffic, and even if there were, getting large amounts of supplies from there to PAP would be a nightmare because of the roads. It sounds to me like the CREST folks are sitting in an ivory tower somewhere, completely divorced from reality.

  • Linda

    Hey for RCCL. I feel sure those men and women that work for RCCL want to keep their jobs and their salaries instead of looking for hand-outs.

  • Karen C.

    I might change the photo to one that shows some of the suffering in Haiti — maybe a child with a newly amputated leg or arm sleeping outside under a tent.

  • DaveS

    I don’t know anything about that organization CREST, but I doubt they’ve done a fraction for Haiti of what RCCL has done. CREST is all about “unsightly” images; RCCL is about providing jobs to Haitians who really need them.

  • Laura Townsend Elion

    I write for this site, and in my day job, I work for Catholic Relief Services – one of the world’s largest NGOs working in international relief and development.

    CRS is currently running several large relief programs in Haiti. We are delivering about 62 metric tons of food a day, we helped restore the St. Francis de Sales hospital to working condition, and our medical teams are treating an estimated 300 patients a day.

    People, and groups, are entitled to their opinions about the correctness of RCCL returning to Haiti, but CREST, quoting the NYT, is vastly overstating the security problems of Haiti at this moment, and oversimplifying with the type of ‘help’ they suggest RCCL might give to that country in lieu of continuing their operations there.

    While there is tension wrought by the extreme need of the people, our staff in Port au Prince have found on balance that the Haitian people are patient, resilient, and grateful for assistance. A colleague remarked that the sporatic acts of desperation-fueled violence he had witnessed or heard about in Haiti did not seem to outnumber the melees reported during the American Black Friday sales. Please remember, the Haitians are not fighting over flatscreen TVs – they are starving, hurt and homeless, and they need our help.

    It would be unrealisitc to expect RCCL, without any prior experience in humanitarian disasters, to be able to render any but the most simple of acts of assistance. To suggest that this firm is somehow damaging the country by continuing to provide some revenues to a very needy nation, and the promise of normalcy in a world starved of the mundane at this moment,is the height of irresponsiblity on their part.

    Several of their suggestions smack of inexperience instantly – cruise ships and their ports are not configured properly to carry and deliver relief supplies, workers need faster transportation to the area than a cruise ship, the idea of housing displaced Haitians at the port in realitiy only means transplating the refugee crisis, not helping it – for Haitians with no prior ties to Labadee, its not feasible to move them temporarily a hundred miles to the coast for relief activities. Housing relief wrokers on ships is likewise impractical – it removes them from quick access to the areas they need to work.

    CREST should stick to offering suggestions on how to limit one’s carbon admissions. And I gotta wonder, how much assistance have they offered to Haiti? What? They say they’re not in the relief business? Well, neither is RCCL…

  • Dalit

    I have previously posted under Ned Levi’s article, but just want to say I ABSOLUTELY AGREE with CREST. RCCL’s decision to return immediately to Labadee is ridiculously insensitive, and the fact that they are disguising it with their good intentions to help instead of the fact that it wouldn’t be profitable for them to lose the port, is shameful. Nothing is 100% to either side, and I agree RCCL is doing some good on the way, but overall it was a very bad idea to continue Labadee visits as usual.

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