Royal Caribbean cruise ships continue to dock at Labadee on Haiti’s north coast. Some passengers are frightened and upset by this, and media outrage is already starting. Royal Caribbean, in response, says that the ships are bringing humanitarian aid and that Labadee is crucial to Haiti’s recovery. They insist that stopping the visits to Labadee would be abandoning Haiti.
There are decent arguments for both sides here. Tourism is a source of income for Haiti, and it’s hard to argue that any source of income should be discontinued. The UN and the government of Haiti both support the continuation of cruise ship visits. On the other hand, it’s just hard to stomach the contrast. Should people be drinking margaritas sixty miles from a disaster site?
It feels bad, this image of people partying so close to mass death. But even before the earthquake, Haiti was desperately poor. People were already partying next to gruesome poverty. It was just a chronic disaster instead of an acute emergency. To me, the question hinges on whether the cruise ship visits were genuinely beneficial to Haiti. If they are not, the docking is just an insult.
We can estimate the financial benefit pretty easily. Labadee is a private resort that’s leased exclusively by Royal Caribbean for the cruise line passengers. According to Wikipedia, it employs 300 Haitians and allows another 200 people to sell their wares on site. It also pays $6 per passenger to the government of Haiti. The resort is fully walled off – cruise passengers cannot enter Haiti from the port. So the only economic benefit to Haiti of these visits is the salaries, the income from sales, and the fee per passenger.
The ship that docked at Labadee was the Independence of the Seas, and its passenger capacity is 3,634. So, each port stop at Labadee would bring in $21,804 if the ship is at full capacity. Haiti’s average annual wage is $400. Assuming that Royal Caribbean pays its staff double that average wage, Labadee also brings in $240,000 a year in salaries, or $20,000 a month.
Is that much money worth the instinctive moral repugnance we all feel? I think the only ones equipped to make that choice are Haitians. The government of Haiti has supported the cruise ship visits, and Royal Caribbean’s resort staff have not quit their jobs en masse. Moral repugnance isn’t stopping them. I guess it shouldn’t stop us.