Today is the third occasion when Royal Caribbean has canceled a port call in its private destination of Labadee, Haiti. The Vision of the Seas was supposed to call on Royal Caribbean’s fenced-off private port today but instead the cruise line has chosen to avoid Labadee and take passengers on the Vision of the Seas to San Juan a little earlier, according to the unofficial RCL Blog.
The last two times a Royal Caribbean cruise ship was suppose to call on Labadee ( Freedom of the Seas on January 19th and the Navigator of the Seas on January 21st), the cruise line initially encountered a small group of boats with protesters aboard and then on the second occasion refused to disembark its passengers there because it had not yet received assurances from the Haitian government that the drama would not be repeated. It replaced the port on these two cruises with a sea day. Royal Caribbean has reportedly returned the passengers’ port taxes for Ladabee, as it is permitted to do in its one-sided passenger ticket. There are rumors and a couple of postings on social media sites that Royal Caribbean has replaced Labadee with Belize, but the company has decided not to post anything official. The cruise line has done a poor job notifying guests who are booked on cruises which include Labadee in the next few weeks exactly what is happening.
Today was suppose to be the day of the much anticipated national elections in Haiti. Royal Caribbean has implied that the protests in Labadee were about the national elections, but there appears to be far more to the story that the cruise line is admitting publicly.
The cruise line took over sovereign Haitian land when it made its deal with Baby Doc Duvalier in 1986. It separated the village of Labadie with a 12 foot chain-linked fence, covered with barbwire, from its private resort which it trademarked Labadee®.
Labadee® is a major money maker for the cruise line. Royal Caribbean pays no actual rent of any kind for the 260 acres of waterfront property, but its passengers pay a $10 to $12 head tax. Few people will argue that this money reaches the local villagers in Haiti, which some local people contend is the real source of the local protests last week. Passengers pay hundreds of dollars to Royal Caribbean to ride on the "Dragon’s Breath Flight Line" (a zip line which towers over the beach), or to rent jet-skis, or to lounge in a private cabana. A "Labadoozie" frozen rum drink costs a whopping $14 plus 18%. Needless to say, Haitians on the other side of the barbwire do not receive any of this money and are mired in abject poverty. The local artisans, who are permitted thought the barbwired scurity fence, receive only a pittance selling their local artwork. In contrast, cruise ships from Royal Caribbean and its sister company Celebrity bring many millions of dollars of money generated in Labadee back to their headquarters in Miami on each cruise.
Many cruise passengers don’t know, or seem not to care, about the troubled history of Haiti or Royal Caribbean’s sharp deal with the former corrupt leaders of Haiti, which resulted in the Miami-based cruise line obtaining 260 acres of water front land for 50 years. Many people don’t seem to understand that the resort of Labadee is part of Haiti. Some still believe that it is an island unto itself or is part of Hispaniola, a marketing image encouraged by the cruise line knowing that selling a vacation spot in an impoverished and sometimes violent country like Haiti was a long shot. Even a travel article published recently in the News-Gazette newspaper in Champaign, Illinois about cruising to Labadee mistakingly calls it a "private island" located just "off the shore of Haiti."
Indeed, Royal Caribbean’s official video of Labadee misleadingly refers to it as "Royal Caribbean’s Private Island Paradise."
Large multi-national companies obtaining sweet deals for valuable land of impoverished Caribbean or Central America nations for private destinations seems like business as usual in the winner-take-all world of the cruise industry. Multi-billion dollar, Fortune 200 companies gobbling up ports in one-sided deals with beholden and often corrupt leaders of tiny countries in the Caribbean and Central America seems to be viewed as just good business.
Cruise lines are making sharp deals throughout the Caribbean. The government of Belize just passed a bill which "legislates tax and duty exemptions for Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL), a billion dollar multi-national company that has been given a 25-year exclusive contract to control cruise operations in southern Belize," according to a local newspaper in Belize. The Supreme Court of Belize earlier found that NCL "fast-tracked" its dredge-and-fill Harvest Caye project with the government hastily approving the NCL’s new port and resort project over environmental concerns.
The indefinite postponement of the elections, apparently due to violence and fear of corruprion, will result in Royal Caribbean postponing its decision when it will return its ship to Labadee. Have no doubt about one thing – Royal Caribbean will return to Labadee. It has directed far too much of its profits on building a pier, zip-lining and roller-coaster rides and cabanas to walk away from such an immensely profitable waterfront boondoggle that it has tied up for the next 24 years.
It seems questionable to me whether any significant percentage of Royal Caribbean passengers care about whether the cruise line is exploiting the local villagers. It’s just another private destination, they say, like Coco Cay (another Royal Caribbean private resort), or Half Moon Cay (operated by HAL), or Castaway Cay (operated by Disney).
But it seems, unnfortunately, that Royal Caribean feels compelled to first make a point with the protesters. It will continue to freeze out the local people, just like Carnival Corporation did when 150 Indian P&O waiters congregated on the pier in Seattle and politely protested their low wages and the withholding of tips. When it was over, despite promises that there would be no retribution, the Carnival CEO’s terminated all of the waiters and black-balled them from ever working in the cruise industry.
One Royal Caribbean crew menber left a comment on my Facebook page: "guests did not pay to change the world during their visits but to relax and have fun." Is this true? Once Royal Caribbean shows the protesters who is boss of Labadee®, will passengers again be unloaded into the cruise line’s private resort to zip-line, parasail and drink $14 Labadoozies in their private cabanas, or will they wake up to the injustice of Labadee®?
Photo Credit: Tancy Talks Cruising Part 2: Fake Haiti.
January 26, 2016 Update: Time magazine weighs in.
January 28, 2016 Update: A travel agent takes a look at Labadee.