A Cheap Holiday In Other People's Misery!

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I don’t want a holiday in the sun
I want to go to the new Belsen
I wanna see some history
‘Cause now I got a reasonable economy

— The Sex Pistols, Holidays In The Sun

haiti cruise ship
The Royal Caribbean "Schadenfreude"


…Royal Caribbean resumed bringing vacationers to Haiti after last week’s earthquake, which killed tens of thousands of people in and around the capital of Port-au-Prince.

Royal Caribbean deposits the tourists on the picturesque peninsula of Labadee, which was unaffected by the disaster and where the company has spent millions of dollars on what it calls its own “private paradise.”

The area is heavily guarded, and visitors don’t spend the night. But they enjoy Labadee’s “pristine beaches, breathtaking scenery and spectacular water activities,” according to Royal Caribbean’s Web site…

…The company’s cruise ships are also delivering supplies — including rice, dried beans, powdered milk, water and canned goods — to the region.

Officials with the cruise line have been trying to reassure customers who may be having second thoughts about going on a trip that includes a stop in Haiti.

“It isn’t better to replace a visit to Labadee (or for that matter, to stay on the ship while it’s docked in Labadee) with a visit to another destination for a vacation,” Adam Goldstein, president and CEO of Royal Caribbean International, wrote on his blog?

No. Just no. You’ve already spent the “hundreds of millions of dollars” on fashioning this little savory chunk of someone else’s country full of desperately poor people into your own corporate-owned, gated getaway for foreigners only. That money’s already done whatever good it’s going to do – if indeed it did any (depending upon how you spent it, and who you hired). And I’m sure it takes a staff to maintain and keep your “private paradise” guarded from the thirsty, malnourished rabble even when the clodhopping feet of sunburned package-tour tourists aren’t there. Groundskeepers, cleaning staff, etc – all work probably harder and longer when the ship’s in “port,” true — but they don’t go away when the tourists aren’t there (with the possible exception of the bartenders and scuba instructors). In short, most of the money you’re spending in Haiti is either already spent, or you’ll continue to spend, even if your ships temporarily suspend going there for a month or two. And yeah, I know – you already donated some money to Haiti relief. Bully for you. It doesn’t excuse resuming normal business operations – which, for you, are frivolity and relaxation – in the midst of (not even the wake of) such a disaster. Haiti needs money right now, that’s for sure, and medical supplies and food.

Also body bags and gravediggers – with bulldozer licenses.

What they don’t need is to know that just over the next rise, there are fifteen hundred foreign dilettantes on a private beach who’ve been assured by your corporate PR department that by ordering that third round of virgin piña coladas, they’ll be “helping the people of Haiti.” You really want to help, Royal Caribbean? Announce that you’ll suspend your normal cruise to Haiti for the next month, and convert as much of the ship that would ordinarily have carried passengers to Haiti as practicable to cargo space. Load it up to the gunwales with food and supplies. Then hire some of those locals who you say would benefit so much from the tourism dollar to – instead of serving drinks and washing tourists’ laundry – ensure that a path is open to get supplies from Labadee to the people who need them most in Port Au Prince. That would help not only the local economy, but also the people whose lives have been so desperately battered by the earthquake.

And it’d have the added bonus of not making you look like soulless corporate hacks.

For f**k’s sake, you’ve made a mint for years off foreign – mostly American – tourists, by pimping out your own manicured slice of someone else’s country to the tourism industry. Isn’t it about time you gave something back other than the low-wage jobs that you had to provide in order to find people to serve up your shrimp cocktails and watered-down margaritas and mop the travertine tile floors of the surf club after the tourists have lumbered off to their next destination? Would it kill you to show a little respect by suspending normal cruise routes to Labadee for a month or two, even if you’re not going to take my above suggestion?

16 thoughts on “A Cheap Holiday In Other People's Misery!

    1. I know – that’s the piece I linked to in the post. I read that RC has donated $100M, etc. But when that’s combined with the nearly-immediate resumption of normal operations – meaning selling luxury which was crafted from and builds upon – the extreme poverty of others AFTER they’ve suffered one of the worst earthquakes in human history ON TOP OF all that poverty, the donations have much more of a “please don’t rain condemnation down on our heads” feel, rather than a “holy crap, how can we help this besieged nation which has helped enrich us so greatly” feel.

  1. I was referring more to the comments of organizations other than RC. They seemed to support the decision made by RC. I still tend to agree with you, but suggest that maybe it’s not quite that B&W.

  2. Wife –

    Sure, it’s not black and white, but here we have a company that can do far more than just help by writing a check. They can deliver supplies, provisions, etc., to these peoples’ front door.

    Not only are they not doing that, they’re essentially telling their clientele “don’t worry about all the poor people a stone’s throw from here. Not only will they not ruin your vacation, but by BEING on vacation, you’re actually helping!” Bollocks.

  3. TofP

    I agree. I think the point about tourism is probably valid under normal circumstances. Nothing about this could remotely be considered normal.

  4. I don’t understand how you think it would improve anything for the people of Haiti if this ship no longer stopped at this port-of-call. Please explain how this would make ANYTHING better.

    As I see it, when the ship stops in Haiti passengers spend money, in Haiti. This is money that the people of Haiti desperately need. They need to EARN money, not just have it handed to them. They need more commerce, not less. They need more companies who will bring people to the islands to spend money. People aren’t going to be visiting Port au Prince and spending tourist dollars any time soon, but that’s no reason to stop spending elsewhere, where the island still has resources (e.g. beautiful beaches) that attract visitors. If anything, one of the best ways to help Haitians would be for MORE ships to stop and visit (and spend money) in the undamaged parts of Haiti.

    I have relatives who lived on Kawaii (in Hawaii) when hurricane Iniki destroyed the island. The economy of Kawaii was destroyed as no tourists came for more than a year – this resulted in more than 50% unemployment. My relatives lost their business. They would have been thrilled if there had been some way for cruise ships to stop and bring tourists to their business so they could continue to provide to those who visit the islands.

    1. JC –

      It seems your point is the few dollars that trickle down from the people who visit these tourist-y locations benefit the people of Haiti indirectly, and you’re suggesting they should be grateful for whatever tourist dollars come their way to benefit them.

      Sure, it’s better to earn than just have something handed to you. Under normal circumstances. These are anything but normal circumstances. The country is already staggeringly poor because of crushing debt to foreign countries (the Haitians essentially bought their freedom and are now trying to pay their way out of it; have been for generations now while the rest of the world watches them sink).

      Add to that an infrastructure that was barely working before the quake, and you’ve got a completely devastated island. I mean, have you SEEN the pictures? What do you think these people need right now? A huge helping hand from the rest of the world to get their country running again, or a sliver of a percentage of a tip offered by a wealthy vacationer on a booze cruise?

  5. Have you ever been on an all-inclusive cruise like the ones Royal Caribbean offers? There’s usually no reason to go anywhere else in the local economy to do anything (unless you care about local culture, which is not why most people book slow-boat cruises to sunny beach destinations). There are bars and laundrys and pretty much anything else you could want, already provided for you within the confines of the “heavily guarded” area. I wouldn’t urge US companies who might have a factory or assembly plant in Haiti to halt operations in the country, because you’re right – among the things Haiti needs is a resumption of normal commerce.

    But in a time of such world-stunning tragedy, cruise lines which bring scant dollars (remember, they’re there for less than a day; not even enough to dirty some sheets) and go out of their way to keep the tourists within a pre-determined area outside of normal commerce zones don’t really add much to the local economy at all. And, as even the travel professionals in the CNN article admitted, the optics are extremely bad. If Royal Caribbean provided a genuinely significant boost to the local economy, I might be tempted to say “screw the optics,” but in this case, no. It’s not just bad PR, either; there’s a reason why this “feels” so wrong: because it IS. And RC, unlike companies that makes shoes or parts for tractors, has one asset – a huge boat – that actually COULD be of use in assisting the relief efforts underway in Port Au Prince.

  6. I’m all in favor of posts starting off with Sex Pistols lyrics. The tone and premise is full of admirable motivation, but it’s simply not realistic. Royal Caribbean can’t just stop normal business operations and turn over a ship to cargo. They’ll go out of business, and thousands of jobs all over will go out with them. (And does Haiti really need more relief items, or the infrastructure and resources to actually get them to the people that need it most? The boat won’t help that.)

    “1500 hundred foreign dilettantes?” On a Royal Caribbean cruise? No way. These are middle class, working class joes, many of which are taking their only vacation of the year, and have been looking forward to it for months. Is RC going to pull the plug on them a misguided notion of solidarity for “the people?” That’ll go over well.

    I also disagree with the notion that leisure travel/vacationers have a cause/effect relationship to the poverty in Haiti. It’s been misgoverned and corrupt for decades. There’s not enough time or space in this comment box to discuss the history and politics of how Haiti wound up as well, Haiti, but a tourist sipping a rum runner on the beach neither causes or extends that dynamic. The money that they provide the local economy, however “scant,’ is better than none, and next to none is what Haiti gets as a pure tourist destination.

    And what DO the workers at the resort think anyway? I haven’t seen quote one from them anywhere. I would bet that the last thing they want during a crisis like this a forced furlough. (And there isn’t even a slight chance that ANY business would pay them to not work, especially in this economy, where vacation/leisure travel is getting pinched.)

    RC is in a difficult position. (I hate the fancy-shmancy term “optics.” Just call it perception and get on with it.) Say nothing, and they get nicked for trying to hide something. Make a statement and draw the ire of those who think they should suspend their business to assist the relief efforts. This will delight their competitors (because it is still a business) and totally piss off a huge majority of their customers, most of which have had these trips circled on the refrigerator calendar for months. Good luck getting them back.

    1. JD –

      You think that utilizing the services of one boat of RC’s out of their fleet will drive them out of business? Seriously?

      You also mention how they’d piss off their customers. Already, this is a bad pr move for them because they’ve found themselves in a difficult spot and probably done one of the top five most ass backwards things they can do. The pr boost (and extra revenue generated thereof) would be immense if they were able to say, “we’ve taken Boat X out of commission during this crisis to aid the ailing survivors in Haiti.”

      Then, RC becomes synonymous with humanitarian aid, and more people flock to their cruise lines. Simple, really.

      1. I don’t think that humanitarian efforts will ever be a significant factor to the vast majority of cruise passengers. Cost, where it the ship docks, when it sails, safety, the amenities on board, and cost again are the main reasons. No one knew, or cared, what RC or any other cruise line did in their philanthropic efforts before.

        Will RC go out of business? No. Will it help their business though? No. And the margins for leisure travel are already tight. RC gave a million bucks+ to relief efforts, though that will not calm the crowd that thinks they are amoral capitalists.

        The world didn’t stop after the quake. A lot of people sent money, donated supplies, some with special skills went down to help. Good for them. On Wednesday, most everyone returned to work, including employees of cruise lines, hotels, etc.

        This link actually has a quote from a Haitian. http://industry.bnet.com/travel/10004695/royal-caribbeans-stops-in-haiti-arent-immoral/

        I thought this quote was good too, from a separate link in the post above.

        “Arthur Applbaum, a Harvard University professor of ethics and public policy, said that while it shows “moral sensitivity to be disturbed by the thought that one is vacationing on the beach when others are suffering nearby … it also shows insufficient moral reflection to think that proximity makes a moral difference.

        “The people of Haiti are suffering whether you take your beach vacation in the Dominican Republic or in Hawaii,” he said, “and it is a failure of the moral imagination not to be equally troubled in Waikiki.”

    2. [to start with, since you mentioned the Pistols: if you missed it, clicking on the cruise-ship picture will get you a vintage video of the song]

      I think you read too much into my post; nowhere did I say that the folks at RC actually caused the poverty of Haiti. I’m pretty well-acquainted with it, but for anyone who’s not, this is an excellent primer. And you’re right, it’s too long for a comment section on a blog post. But let’s just say I agree with you that the tourists aren’t the primary – or even the proximate – cause of Haitian poverty. Then again, I never said it was, so not quite sure where that came from.

      I also disagree about the “realism” aspect of your objections. “Acts of God” happen all the time, and are actually written into the contingencies of most travel companies’ plans, not to mention insurance companies’ exemptions. Yes, Labadee was unaffected by the earthquake….but that could very easily have turned out quite differently than it did. Had the epicenter been just a little different, or had the devastation been wider-spread, RC might very easily be facing a no-choice situation right now of whether to continue normal business operations. Thankfully – for them, I suppose – that didn’t happen. They now are in a position where they most certainly do have a choice. And whether you call it “optics,” “perception,” or “a ham sandwich,” the sight of fifteen hundred foreign dilettantes (I will repeat that phrase, and explain why its use is accurate in a moment) taking their leisure in the midst of an entire nation’s misery isn’t only morally stunted, it’s terrible PR. I’ve never seen a detailed layout of the “heavily guarded” Labadee “private paradise,” but I’d venture a guess that – as I said – many of the jobs created by RC in creating it are either already long-gone (earth-movers, builders of the surf-club, plumbers, etc.), or they’re ongoing, such as grounds-maintenance, guards, general upkeep, etc. Sure, the beachfront waiters don’t work when the tourists aren’t there….but the tourists aren’t there every day anyway, either.

      OK – “fifteen hundred foreign dilettantes.” I used the word “foreign” to simply and accurately indicate “not from Haiti.” It’s not a pejorative, by itself. “Dilettantes” certainly is, but here’s why I think that’s definitely one possible legitimate perception of RC’s continued cruises, from the Haitian perspective. We often hear – at least since this tragedy struck, before that, nobody much paid attention – that Haiti is “the poorest country in the western hemisphere, and one of three or four poorest in the entire world.” But I don’t think people from the United States who haven’t experienced the third world really grasp what that can – and usually does – mean. I won’t front like I’m some experienced third-world traveler, nor will I regale you with tales of tropic woe in an attempt to tug the heartstrings, but I will point out that to much of the third world, even the working and middle class in this country seem unimaginably wealthy. And with good reason: because, in empirical comparison to them, our working and middle classes are unimaginably wealthy. So to offer the explanation that because these aren’t Silversea or Seabourn cruises – and the passengers aren’t Silversea or Seabourn-class travelers – as a justification for why this isn’t so bad strikes me as off-the-mark. The proper comparison isn’t how much higher up the ladder of luxury one could potentially go from this cruise and these passengers (by American or European standards) but rather directly to the people who live in the affected area. And, by those standards, the disparity is a yawning chasm without needing to scale the heights of luxury that would make you and I feel poor by comparison. Lastly, I understand “dilettante” to mean someone who takes up a subject or pursuit casually, unseriously or merely for amusement. Is that not the very definition of a cruise-vacation’s essence? Those people aren’t there to study Haiti, mingle with the population, do anthropological research, provide aid or in fact anything else. Hell, I’d bet RC gets complaints that there aren’t McDonald’s nearby or that the amenities aren’t sufficiently “American.”

      I don’t deny that this entire mess puts RC in a tough situation. I just think that to compare it to the seriousness of the situation faced by the people of Haiti strains the bounds of credulity, to put it mildly. Under extreme, unusual adverse circumstances, people, companies, entire nations have done extraordinary things, when forced by circumstance to do so. In World War II, our entire industrial manufacturing base shifted from production of consumer goods to production of the materials of war. Women went to work doing jobs that were previously thought only do-able by men. And we made it work. No, we THRIVED from it. Sometimes, less frequently, people, companies and countries do extraordinary things even without having to be forced to. Royal Caribbean could easily have been in a position after this earthquake where they would have had no choice but to suspend their Haiti route to Labadee indefinitely; I have a feeling they would have found a way to satisfy most of their customers some other way. Remember, this is a cruise ship which typically stops at multiple destinations; I’m no expert, but would it have been impossible for them to – if forced – come up with creative alternate routes, spend an extra day at one of the other stops along the ship’s route, more time aboard ship, etc? Thankfully for RC, they weren’t forced into that position. I wish the desperately poor people of Haiti could say the same. Given that they can’t say the same, I think it’s admirable of RC to have donated as much as they did to Haitian relief. Those directly-donated funds probably account for a lot more than even a month or two’s worth of one-day cruises through Labadee. And even if you think my idea of temporarily turning a cruise ship into a relief vessel – and hiring people to help secure distribution routes and help distribute supplies to the earthquake victims – is silly or unworkable, do you really think that having to slightly alter the itinerary of a multi-day cruise in order to bypass one particular spot, while you let the people of Haiti recover (and while you donate funds to assist that recovery) would be so impossible for RC that it would bankrupt the company or cause undue hardship? I don’t.

  7. But it didn’t hit Labadee. Or the Dominican Republic, which has plenty of beach resorts full of “dilettantes” from around the world. Should they cancel too? Open up their rooms to refugees? RC was disembarking passengers on Haiti for a long time before the quake, and life sucked down the road from there then too.

    I think the WW2 analogy misses the mark. What the industrial base did was amazing, but they were still getting paid, just not from consumers. The US government (and your tax and deficit dollar) became their biggest customer. And although I hate this analogy, it fits-it absolutely trickled down to the shop rats on the factory floor. Yeah, a lot of them were women, because a lot of the men were in the armed forces.

    Refitting a cruise ship is probably not “unworkable,” but is it necessary? Other than to prove a big public point to the world as to how much RC “cares?” The first thing relief agencies say after a big event like this is “we don’t need more hard goods, please send money.” One could argue that what Haiti needs is MORE investment like RC has made. You could even extend it further that a cruise ship passenger lounging at Labadee is helping out MORE by being there than Mexico, the Bahamas, etc.

    I probably know more about Haiti than most, (highly recommend Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder) and I wouldn’t go to there to “mingle with the people” and experience their culture as much as I would walk around with a fanny pack and digital camera in the inner city of Detroit or Atlanta.

    What’s more depressing to me is all the money that has been funneled into Haiti over the years has done little to improve the average Haitian’s lot in life. Skipping Labadee, like it or not, would hurt the very people you want to help most. They want to work, and a full cruise ship means food on the table for a lot of people. Yes, it looks bad, but empty beaches, empty pockets of workers who rely on tourist dollars is worse.

    1. My main point in the original post was to highlight the disingenuousness of a large multinational tourism conglomerate claiming that the best thing they – or their customers – could do for Haiti was to resume normal business operations. That’s simply self-serving bullshit. I’m aware that the idea of converting a cruise ship to cargo use would be wildly problematic, expensive, and likely take a great deal of time. Yet – as you admitted – it could be done. Just like people who are moved enough by the plight of the Haitians deciding on an individual basis to take the money they would have spent on a vacation and directly donating it to Hatian relief through the Red Cross or another charitable organization could be done by anyone who wanted to do so.

      I am no more suggesting that RC expensively and only temporarily retrofit one of their cruise ships for Haitian relief than I am that every US-based traveler who’s got a vacation planned convert their vacation fund to cash and send it to Haiti for the relief effort. What I am suggesting is that we stop kidding ourselves – as the CEO of RC appeared to be doing on his blog, along with many of the trade publications which were quoted in the article supporting his statements – that the “best” thing any of us could do for Haiti is to simply resume business as usual. It isn’t, not by a long shot.

      And, while tourism-based businesses do indeed bring benefit to the economy of areas in which they do business, I will repeat that it’s not just a simple “ick factor” or instinctive (but misguided) gut-reaction which leads most of us to initially conclude that partying on a beach while others suffer drastically mere miles from our merriment. The comments of the RC CEO and others in both the article to which you linked in response to Tom and my original CNN article point out that it’s irrational for people to feel any worse about the plight of the Haitians if they’re a couple of kilometers away from them than if they’re on the other side of the world. I agree; distance doesn’t matter, and it is irrational to feel any worse about the situation if one is partying on a beach in Haiti than if one is partying on a beach in Hawaii.

      What’s not irrational, though, is the feeling itself that potential visitors like the one in the CNN article had: a feeling of not being able to enjoy themselves, knowing such misery was just over the next rise. What being so close to the devastation itself does is force people to think about it. Any guilt they feel is a natural response to the notion of disporting oneself with recreational frivolities while others suffer. One of the genuine problems of the modern world is how distanced we have in many cases become from the actual consequences of our actions – or, equally often, our inactions. How many more vegetarians would this country have if every person who wanted a steak had to pick out a cow and shoot it in the head? Perhaps your meat consumption wouldn’t change – but a lot of people’s would.

      In the end, I don’t necessarily begrudge anyone their own choices; we all have different thresholds, different triggers, and different standards of what’s acceptable behavior in various circumstances. What I object to is people who try to duck the moral responsibility for their actions by hiding behind provably false sentiments like “this is actually the best thing – and the most I could do – for the people of Haiti.” No….it isn’t. Anyone who has an “initial gut reaction” that the “optics” of partying on a beach scant miles from scenes of unimaginable (to Western sentiments) misery is being disingenuous if they spend hours convincing themselves through convenient rationalizations that there’s nothing more – or better – they could do than the partying. You (generic you) want to make that decision? Fine: far be it from me to judge a complex decision, many factors of which I have no knowledge of. But OWN it; know what you are doing and do it anyway. Don’t piss on my boots and try to convince me it’s raining.

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