Cruise Ships and the Crisis in Haiti

Cruiselines have been taking heat for continuing to bring tourists to Haiti. Critics have thought it unseemly for wealthy vacationers to be enjoying sun and sand on an island currently in a state of deep crisis.

See this article by Robert Booth, writing for The Guardian: Cruise ships still find a Haitian berth

Sixty miles from Haiti’s devastated earthquake zone, luxury liners dock at private beaches where passengers enjoy jetski rides, parasailing and rum cocktails delivered to their hammocks.

The 4,370-berth Independence of the Seas, owned by Royal Caribbean International, disembarked at the heavily guarded resort of Labadee on the north coast on Friday; a second cruise ship, the 3,100-passenger Navigator of the Seas is due to dock.

The Florida cruise company leases a picturesque wooded peninsula and its five pristine beaches from the government for passengers to “cut loose” with watersports, barbecues, and shopping for trinkets at a craft market before returning on board before dusk. Safety is guaranteed by armed guards at the gate.

The decision to go ahead with the visit has divided passengers. The ships carry some food aid, and the cruise line has pledged to donate all proceeds from the visit to help stricken Haitians. But many passengers will stay aboard when they dock; one said he was “sickened”….

Is there anything wrong with cruise lines continuing to do business with Haiti? I have to admit that, at a visceral level, I have some of the same reaction critics have had. There’s something a bit ‘off’ about having fun in the sun while others are suffering so near-by. It’s a bit like having a picnic adjacent to a funeral. It seems tacky. But is there anything wrong with it?

First, it’s important to note that Royal Caribbean is donating $1 million to the relief effort. When its ship docked in Haiti for passengers to enjoy the beach, it also dropped off “Forty pallets of rice, beans, powdered milk, water, and canned foods … and a further 80 are due and 16 on two subsequent ships.” So, the cruise company is doing a lot of good, both by contributing to the Haitian economy (by bringing tourists who spend money, for example) and by making philanthropic contributions. Now, that in itself doesn’t automatically make it OK to continue bringing tourists to Haiti during the crisis. Maybe the contrast between wealthy vacationers and desperate Haitians is just too repugnant to be overcome by mere money. Maybe it’s too much like waving a hundred-dollar bill in a poor man’s face and then giving him a dollar. Maybe.

But is it really plausible to say it’s wrong to have fun (or make money by taking people to have fun) “too close” to poverty and desperation? It’s hard to imagine making that a general rule. Should poor countries be scratched off our list of places to spend our vacation dollars? That’s hard to imagine, and it’s hard to imagine a principle that would let you distinguish between Haiti this week and, say, Brazil or Mexico or Trinidad & Tobago. And it’s worth keeping in mind that Haiti itself is a terribly poor and deeply troubled place at the best of times. It’s the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. It’s per-person GDP is about 1/36th that of the U.S. It’s #14 on the Fund for Peace’s 2009 Failed States Index. So, if it’s unethical for cruise ships to patronize Haiti’s ports this week, what about next week? Next month? Next year? When will Haiti be sufficiently stable that wealthy vacationers can feel OK about visiting (and about thereby contributing to the Haitian economy)?

I think it’s important for the world to know that Haiti is, in at least some small way, still open for business. And I think it’s worth a bit of awkwardness to send that signal.

Once again: here are a couple of great links for helping the situation in Haiti right now (without having to book a cruise)…
World Food Programme and
Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders)
(If you choose to give to another organization, make sure you find a reputable one. But please do give.)

13 comments so far

  1. mkleberte on

    The cruise lines ar booked far in advance.
    With the Haitian crisis the cruise line has the option to cancel all trips and loose all revenues.

    The vacationers too have the option to cancel their individual trips, some of them may be non-refundable. Some people on these trips are not wealthy and this would be a significant loss for them.

    I personally could not enjoy the trip unless I could participate in the rescue effort while on shore.

    The crisis in Haiti is unfortunate but there are other crises in the world right now too. Should we cancel our trips for them?

    Some do Some don’t. Mexico is struggling with loss of revenues due to the escalating drug violelnce.

  2. John M on

    The issues are nightmarishly complex, but Booth’s followup article (and especially the headline) is a PR nightmare in its own right.

    “Cruise company to donate sun loungers to Haiti makeshift hospital”, by Robert Booth, Guardian, January 19, 2009.

  3. Chris MacDonald on


    I think that headline is borderline malicious…thanks for pointing it out. The headline trivializes the donation. Hopefully people will think clearly about this & realize that’s actually a significant donation (note that deck chairs are precisely the kind of chairs used in, e.g., blood-donor clinics!)


  4. John M on

    Unhappily, that was the featured headline yesterday afternoon in the story cluster on Haiti in the Google News Business page, so a lot of folks probably saw only the headline.

  5. DarryleHuffman on

    I feel for the people of Haiti. I think it is a very bad situation to be in. The people need our support not only with donations but with the money that comes in from the revenue of people vacationing there.It would seem to me that it would be a good time for the people vacationing there to help their fellow man by going and helping on the relief effort rather than staying on the ship and being sickened by the boat docking there. Trade the jet skis in to go and help give food out. Rather then being served a cool drink go and give your fellow man a cup of water.

  6. Sarah Mitchell on

    Thanks, Chris, for pointing out the bigger issue in this whole sorry story; the suitability of Haiti (and other devastatingly poor countries) as a tourist destination – regardless of the current disaster emergency. It’s a conundrum I’ve struggled with for a long time.

    I don’t have an answer. I’m just glad you raised the question and would love to see you explore it in greater detail at a later date.

  7. Liz on

    I can’t help but feel that the only reason to avoid a previously scheduled trip to Haiti would be to avoid having to face the guilt/discomfort one might feel for our relative affluence and good fortune…like some kind of bizarre opposite of schadenfreude.

  8. Kepola on

    This is a very complex situation, but I would have to agree with the cruise line. Yes… it would make the passengers feel more comfortable to avoid Haiti because of their situation, but avoiding it and going to another location does not make the econmoic need go away. It only makes the passengers feel less awkward. I completely understand not wanting to order around a waiter, but get off the ship and hand that same waiter the money you would have spent there to help his/her family. Find out what they need. Grab the water/food from your mini fridge. Yes… they are small gestures, but if everyone did it… it would make a big affect. Relief for Haiti is taking too long because of airport issues, fuel issues, etc… If Royal Carribbean can bring revenue and supplies to their aid… I stand by them 100%. I would book with their cruise line because of this. For each individual person… do what you feel is right. Don’t relax on the beach. Hand over what you would have spent, lend an ear, be human. But do not kid yourselves that by avoiding the island all together that you are doing the right thing or being respectful of their situation. They need any and all help to rebuild.

  9. vfrolov on

    It’s been delighting to find your post, Chris.

    Even though cruise ships have been bringing vacationers from all over the world for decades, tourism has in no way helped alleviate poverty of people living in Haiti. And it hardly can. First, due to extremely high corruption, which prevents taxes to be spent for public needs. Second, due to the fact that resorts contribute very little to national economy: their owners are private non-national businesses; they employ primarily non-locals, except for lowest paying jobs; all they buy locally is natural food, which is sold for cheap. Tourists don’t spend much locally either, and where they do the money go to a select few.

    The industry has to transform and abide by principles of sustainability if it is to stop being vulture tourism. That’s a challenge.

  10. Chris MacDonald on


    Thanks for your comment. I think the background issue of what local communities get from tourism is an interesting one, and a difficult one — especially when, as you point out is the case in Haiti, the government hasn’t always made decisions that seem truly in the interests of the people they are supposed to serve.

    My main point, here, is that there’s not much reason to think that there’s something especially awful about tourism in Haiti this week, as opposed to last year.


  11. Shel Horowitz, author, Principled Profit on

    Seems to me the stopovers could be a chance to involve passengers directly in relief work, two ways:
    * Organized (and protected) excursions offshore to dig in the rubble, pass out food, etc.
    * Voluntary $ contribution from passengers going ashore

    I’d bet there’d be a fair number of people who would put aside the fun-in-the-sun stuff and dig in to help for a couple of hours. They’ll feel noble, anyway.

    BTW, as a veteran of a few cruises, I’ve long been troubled by the general interaction of cruise boats and the ports that exist only to serve them–not just in developing countries, but also in Alaska. It’s an artificial economy and an artificial culture that creates a great deal of inequity–but that’s a larger discussion than it makes sense to have here.

    Shel Horowitz, lead author of Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green: Winning Strategies to Improve Your Profits and Your Planet

  12. John M on


    I used to walk the Old Bridge from Halifax to Dartmouth on my way to work and often saw the cruise ships coming and going. It got me thinking about what is the point of floating casinos that don’t really go anywhere?

    Even here, where their docking facilities aren’t isolated and the center-ville is within walking distance the city’s relationship with the cruise industry is a bit odd.

    A friend of mine from the Tattoo Choir explained last summer that because of when they arrive and leave it’s generally impossible for the passengers to arrange to see something like a Tattoo performance or a cultural event at the Cohn cultural center at Dalhousie University.

    One would think that with a bit of leadership and imagination that branch of the hospitality industry could do any number of things to improve their reputation and their customers’ experience.

  13. […] Cruise Ships and the Crisis in Haiti […]

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