Condemning Luxury Cruises For Docking in Haiti Is Pointless If We Don't Apply the Same Standards Elsewhere

The Haitian private beach, in this case reliant on more armed guards than most, is otherwise reminiscent of gated resorts around the world.

An instinctive revulsion is hard to suppress: a cruise ship of pampered passengers pulls in to dock at a private beach in Labadee, Haiti, in the wake of the earthquake that killed more Haitians than the survivors can find space to bury them in. How could holidaymakers sip cocktails or take jetski rides, knowing the devastation that persists nearby? Some may have felt uncomfortable, but not enough to dissuade Royal Caribbean from keeping their giant liners to their usual schedule.

Yet this starkest of juxtapositions only highlights in its bleak extremity what is regarded as acceptable elsewhere. Tourism provides a microcosm of modern globalized inequality, with all the advantages or injustices it bestows on those on different sides of the divide. From the Caribbean to south-east Asia, cheap labor and land allow holidaymakers to relax in style for less. The Haitian private beach, in this case reliant on more armed guards than most, is otherwise reminiscent of gated resorts around the world; locals may have access to the beaches in front of hotels but are only notionally welcome, like jellyfish.

And cruise holidays have distilled that essence still further. Nowhere should the economics be more vividly obvious, yet they remain magically suppressed. On these giant floating metaphors, the guests' enormous consumption (cruises, where buffets appear from dawn to midnight, are notorious places to gain weight) is serviced by staff hired from the poorest countries on earth, brought on board under the kind of contracts made feasible by a global labor market. In justifying their decision to press ahead, Royal Caribbean disclosed that 200 Haitians are among the employees on their ships.

While their headquarters are in Miami and the clients are predominantly American, the biggest cruise operators are incorporated in Panama and Liberia and their ships sail under flags of convenience (the Bahamas is a popular modern choice). Legislation is a grey area. The Independence of the Seas, the massive 4,370-berth liner docking in Labadee, is aptly named: the concept of statehood and territory looks increasingly meaningless from the bow of a ship. This corner of Haiti, like Guantánamo on Cuba, is more or less American on a long-term lease. Labadee's picnicking cruise passengers need, perhaps, feel no more guilty than a holidaymaker lounging in the slightly richer Dominican Republic on the other side of the island.

Royal Caribbean's pledge to "not abandon Haiti now they need us most" might raise eyebrows in other destinations: such as Grenada, abandoned in the late 1990s for requesting a modest waste management levy, or conversely Alaska, who found it difficult to keep cruise liners away despite a referendum seeking to curb their effects on unspoilt waters. The worth of cruises to their ports of call has long been controversial. Certainly, the logic of the private beach does not suggest funds being channelled openly to local economies.

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