Following the devastation and destruction of Port of Prince, Royal Caribbean faced the potential public relations nightmare of sailing its mega cruise ships into its private resort of Labadee with thousands of affluent Americans partying and gorging themselves while over 100,000 Haitians lay dead and decaying in the streets and millions more already impoverished Haitians face hunger and hopelessness.
The Guardian newspaper in the U.K. reported that Royal Caribbean's decision to go ahead with scheduled cruises into Labadee "divided passengers." One passenger commented on the popular Cruise Critic forum that he was "sickened" by the thought of frolicking in the Haitian port while other suffered:
"I just can't see myself sunning on the beach, playing in the water, eating a barbecue, and enjoying a cocktail while [in Port-au-Prince] there are tens of thousands of dead people being piled up on the streets, with the survivors stunned and looking for food and water . . . It was hard enough to sit and eat a picnic lunch at Labadee before the quake, knowing how many Haitians were starving," said another. "I can't imagine having to choke down a burger there now.''
Another article "Cruise Ship Docks at Private Beach in Haiti for Barbeque and Water Sports" debates the appropriateness of all of this. The comments range from pointing out the "grotesqueness" of the spectacle of thousands of partying Americans in an idyllic beach to the nonchalant attitude - "life goes on . . . and as always, life is for the living."
There has always been an uneasy disconnect between the opulence of a cruise ship like Royal Caribbean's Independence of the Seas and a country as desperately impoverished as Haiti with a poverty rate of around 80 to 85 %. Most Haitians are forced to survive on less than $2 a day. The U.S. passengers on the Royal Caribbean cruise ship, on the other hand, spend more for the cruise, drinks, casino chips, and excursions than most Haitians will see for decades. In addition to the Independence, Royal Caribbean's Navigator, Freedom, Enchantment and Liberty of the Seas, as well as its subsidiary Celebrity Cruises' Solstice, will all call on Labadee this year.
The disparity between the haves and the have-nots will become even more pronounced as the $1,400,000,000 (billion) Oasis of the Seas, which visited Labadee in December last year, will begin arriving every other week in Labadee starting in May.
The executives at Royal Caribbean know how to make a hard bargain with Caribbean islands which have little economic bargaining power. CEO Richard Fain cut a deal where for only $6 a passenger (paid by the passenger), Haiti turned over a 260 acre tropical waterfront paradise of Haitian sovereign land for Royal Caribbean to consider it "private property" bearing the trademarked name "Labadee®." Yes, that's right. This is a name that Royal Caribbean trademarked as a variation of the French slave owner Marquis de La'Badie who settled in Haiti in the 1600's.
Many years ago an article revealed the hypocrisy of this whole endeavor. Entitled "Fantasy Island: Royal Carribean Parcels Off a Piece of Haiti," the article explained that Royal Caribbean began docking in Haiti in January 1986 after the ruthless dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier leased the land to Royal Caribbean. He thereafter fled to France and the country turned into chaos for the next decade.
Royal Caribbean's timing was perfect.
The article continues: "plagued by a ravaged economy, residual political unrest, and 7,000 unemployed soldiers, the Haitian government was willing to bargain . . . Royal Caribbean got dirt-cheap entry, minimal regulation, and tactful silence." The Haitian government earns less than $30,000 a week from the Royal Caribbean cruise ships, but, as Haiti's minister of tourism said: "we need to start somewhere." Haiti was desperate. Royal Caribbean was Haiti's only choice.
Many argue that for the past many years, Royal Caribbean has not promoted or invested in Haiti. Instead, as the article explains, it "exploited an acquiescent government and dictated its own terms of entry." Its plan was to sell U.S. customers on an imaginary paradise.
Travel agents took the cue from Royal Caribbean and marketed the port as a "private island." The fact that it was no island at all, but part of the mainland of Haiti, didn't bother the travel agents or the cruise line. And it worked. Consider a cruise review a couple of years ago:
One of the best Private Island experiences you could ever wish for! Labadee has four beaches and facilities for lots of people! Labadee is owned and operated by Royal Caribbean for the exclusive use of it's own passengers only . . . Royal Caribbean maintains a nice lunch area on the island. Here you can graze at your heart's content, The cuisine was hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken, ribs, various salads, and deserts. No charge. It's all included in the cost of your cruise!
Even last week, the Miami Herald ran a headline, cluelessly referring to Royal Caribbean returning to the "island" of Labadee. But the pretense of an island is only half of the illusion. Not only did Royal Caribbean fail to promote Haiti, it didn't even refer to Labadee as being in Haiti. Rather it referred to Labadee as part of Hispaniola (the island comprising the Dominican Republic and Haiti) to try and keep the image of Haiti's poverty, violence, and civil unrest away from its customers.
Labadee might as well be an island, considering that Royal Caribbean hires armed guards to patrol the 10-12 foot fences which isolate the Haitians from the cruise line's "private island." Royal Caribbean keeps the locals away from its passengers who are "happily ensconced on the shores of paradise" with no idea that just over the walls are shanty-towns, sweat shops, and hungry and impoverished Haitians. The money spent in the private paradise of Labadee doesn't spread far beyond the fences. The article points out that all of the food, drinks, and even the tropical fruits and vegetables all come from Miami.
So now after isolating itself physically, financially and figuratively from Haiti for the past 20 years, Royal Caribbean is trying to justify not disrupting its business while not seeming indifferent to a country it has been indifferent to for 20 years. It just spent big bucks ($50,000,000) building a new wharf - one of the few locations which can handle the new mega ship Oasis of the Seas - as well as the world's longest zip line and an alpine coaster. Royal Caribbean is banking on bringing the Oasis' 6,000 captive passengers onto that new wharf and charging them for the new zip line ($65), or wave runners ($80) or para-sailing, etc.
In the last few days, Royal Caribbean has made a big deal talking about offloading pallets of food for Haiti. Royal Caribbean's Independence of the Seas sailed with only 60 cases of food and water last Friday according to the Royal Caribbean President's "Nation of Why Not?" blog. That's just four pallets. The blog has some photographs of the few pallets from the Independence of the Seas - four pallets of flour, tomato sauce, can goods, and water bottles. Four pallets? Considering that on a typical seven-day cruise the cruise ship's passengers consume over 100,000 pounds of food and 12,000 gallons of alcohol over the course of over a hundred thousand meals- the photograph of the meager provisions sitting on the dock dwarfed by the huge Independence of the Seas seems like a sick joke.
Subsequent articles mention that other cruises have included up to 40 pallets of food, photographs of which no one has seen, but if true this still is a pittance given the enormous needs of the Haitian people and the huge capabilities of Royal Caribbean's cruise ships.
Supporters of the cruise line point out that Royal Caribbean also pledged to donate a million dollars to Haiti over an unspecified period of time. It talks about using the net profits collected from the passenger's monies spent in Labadee. Whether this occurs over the course of 6 months or a year remains to be seen. Now a million dollars is a lot of money to me and probably anyone reading this article, but it is peanuts for a cruise line like Royal Caribbean.
Royal Caribbean collects around $6,000,000,000 (billion) a year. And because it registered its business in Liberia and its cruise ships fly the foreign flags of Liberia or the Bahamas, it pays $0 in federal Income taxes. $0.
Why only a million dollars? That will accomplish little. Even Royal Caribbean's competitor Carnival promised to send $5 million to Haiti, and it has no relationship with Haiti. The $6 a passenger deal which Royal Caribbean struck with the leaders of Haiti rips the Haitian people off. $6 to go into a 260 acre private paradise? Well established ports in Alaska collect $50 a passenger in head taxes just to step off of the cruise ship.
Americans are generous people. For the next two years, Haiti should receive $100 a passenger. With 6,000 passengers from the Oasis of the Seas alone coming into Labadee a week, the country could receive $600,000 a week rather than the current pittance of $30,000. Each passenger can pay $50 and the cruise line can pay the other $50.
If the cruise line can collect $65 for a 2 minute zip line in Labadee for fun, it can sure as hell can pay $50 a passenger to Haiti to deal with the humanitarian crisis unfolding before its eyes.
$600,000 a week could begin accomplish something.
But instead the cruise line is talking peanuts. And its PR people have created the illusion that the Royal Caribbean executives are in Haiti walking the streets and helping the people.
Royal Caribbean's website shows a photograph of CEO Fain and President Goldstein (above) walking with President Clinton with the mountains of Haiti in the background, next to headlines:
"HUMANITARIAN AID TO HAITI."
The photograph looks impressive; any photo shoot with a President is worth hanging on your wall. But neither Mr. Fain nor Mr. Goldstein have traveled to Haiti since the disaster. And the photograph has nothing to do with humanitarian aid. It was actually taken last year before the earthquake when President Clinton was visiting Haiti on an official visit as the United Nations special envoy.
This U.N. trip was covered by Jason Maloney, of the Pulitzer Center, who ironically enough commented on Royal Caribbean's historical reluctance to support or even acknowledge Haiti. The center explained that there are "political sensitivities surrounding the ownership of the resort." It called Royal Caribbean out on its claim that Labadee is a “private beach destination” or the company’s “private island.” It also ran a photograph (left) of CEO Fain, President Clinton, and Royal Caribbean President Goldstein (in baseball cap and shorts) when Clinton was visiting the cruise line's "private destination."
It seems rather shameful for Royal Caribbean to pull out a photo which has nothing to do with the "humanitarian" crisis for its own PR purposes.
Royal Caribbean has a net worth of $15,000,000,000. It has a (tax free) annual income almost twice greater than Haiti's gross national product.
So in this context - Royal Caribbean's highly publicized pledge of a a measly one million dollars, random pallets of food and water, and a misleading photograph of the cruise line executives with an ex-President are - - - pitiful.
Royal Caribbean is proposing nothing meaningful to address the profound problems of this impoverished and exploited country.
To help Haiti, text HAITI and a donation of $10 will go to the Red Cross. As of this posting, Americans have donated over $19 million via texting for Haiti.
For other articles on this issue:
South Florida Business Journal (Kevin Gale)
The Guardian "The Haves & Have Nots in Haiti" (Gwyn Topam)
Sphere "Vacationing in Hell: Cruise Ships Land in Haiti" (Dave Thier)
"Cruise Ships in Haiti and Misdirected Moral Outrage" @thethirdestate
Haiti - earthquake AP (via Mail OnLine)
Royal Caribbean cruise ship thewe.cc
Haiti - earthquake @CarelPedre via @Mashable
Independence of the Seas "Nation of Why Not?" blog
Royal Caribbean executives (top) Royal Caribbean's website
Royal Caribbean executives (bottom) Pulitzer Center