By Tom Fox, currently aboard the Freedom of the Seas.
Dozens of chanting protesters, banging pots and cymbals, and packed onto a half dozen small vessels, greeted Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas cruise ship as it docked this morning in Labadee, Haiti.
Labadee is a 260-acre peninsula – dubbed a “vacationer’s paradise” by the cruise line — along Haiti’s lush, mountainous and secluded north coast. A small beachfront resort with palm covered cabanas, the area is separated from the rest of the island, cut off by a 12-foot high fence and guarded by security forces.
Royal Caribbean, according to various cruise websites, has leased the land until 2050.
At first it appeared the vessels were approaching the docked ship as part of a rehearsed welcoming ceremony. However, when two coast guard ships arrived and began circling the vessels and encouraging them to leave the waters, it became clear this was a protest – though the specifics of the protesters complaints were not completely spelled out.
One sign, held by one of the protesters, read “USA Away!”
The Freedom of the Seas cruise ship states it carries 3600 passengers. Many were waiting near the gangplanks waiting to disembark shortly after breakfast. With the protests going on many on the ship watched from their balconies taking pictures and waiting for further instructions
After some thirty minutes’ delay the ship, a voice over the ship’s loudspeaker system announce there would be a short delay before passengers could leave the ship. The vessels continued to play cat and mouse with the coast guard vessels, slightly larger than the protesters’ boats, but all dwarfed by the docked cruise ship.
After more than two hours a voice once again came across the loudspeaker system explaining to passengers that local Haitian elections will take place in another week and that the protests they were watching were a local matter.
It seemed a number of passengers and crew members weren’t buying this explanation.
Finally, the voice stated that the cruise ship would not be disembarking today “for the safety of our passengers, which we hold to be of the utmost importance.”
One veteran crewmember told me said she had been sailing into Labadee for 13 years and this was the first time she had seen such a protest.
Nestled on the northern coast of Haiti, Labadee, according to Royal Caribbean’s website, “is the ultimate private destination for cruise vacationers – and we’re the only cruise line that sails there.”
According to several cruise websites, passengers are not allowed to leave Labadee to venture out to see the rest of the island. Haiti is the poorest of the nations in the Western hemisphere and suffered a devastating earthquake in 2010, although it apparently did not affect the northern part of the island where Labadee is located.
Cruise travel websites state that only a small group of Haitian merchants are given rights to sell their merchandise and establish their businesses at the Labadee resort. Most workers are employed by Royal Caribbean and come from outside nations.
Royal Caribbean proudly advertises its private Haitian resort. One advertisement reads: “Looking to unleash adrenaline? Strap on a helmet and harness, and soar down 500 feet on the Dragon’s Breath Flight Line, the world’s longest zip line over water. Curious to explore Haiti’s unique culture and incredible landscapes? Explore Haitian life, its coastline, flora and fauna on one of our exciting shore excursions and tours. Ready to kick back, relax and sip a Labadoozie? Get the VIP treatment while unwinding beachside in our private cabanas. Take it all in on one of our eastern or western Caribbean cruises to Labadee.”
Visitors don’t spend the night at Labadee. For years blogs and message boards have been critical of the idea of tourists frolicking in the sun at Labadee when so much hunger and poverty rest only miles away.
"Royal Caribbean is performing a sickening act to me by taking tourists to Haiti," wrote one poster on CNN’s Connect the World blog. "Having a beach party while people are dead, dying and suffering minutes away hardly makes me want to cruise that particular line," wrote another.
Freedom of the Seas was back at sea by mid-morning with Captain Ron Holmes on one of the ship’s channels reassuring passengers that the protests were solely a local matter and that there would be plenty of activities on board the ship, all intended to make up for the lost fun they had suffered from being kept at sea by the protesters.
Video Credit: Tom Fox