In the weeks since the Jan. 12 earthquake that leveled Port-au-Prince, cruise ships full of mostly American tourists have continued to dock in Labadee, a private resort 60 miles north of Haiti’s devastated capital city. “It was a bit surreal knowing that the center of the world’s focus was only 100 miles away,” says passenger Becky O’Connor, who visited the island on a recent cruise. On the television in her stateroom, Fox News broadcast the first airdrops over Port-au-Prince amid a background of apocalypse. Off the side of her balcony, she could see aid supplies—water, powdered milk, dried beans—being unloaded onto the pier and piled into trucks. But surrounding her and the other 3,000 or so passengers who had booked mid-January cruises on Royal Caribbean International (the only cruise line with a port in Haiti) were all the amenities one would expect of a luxury vacation. On board: 17 decks’ worth of buffets, swimming pools, casinos, miniature golf, and a 1,200-seat theater. Ashore: a Dis-neyesque pseudotown with pristine beaches, lovely cabanas, and quaint cafés and shops.
At first, passengers were uneasy about the visit—mulling over safety concerns and discussing among themselves the ethical quandary of so much wealth and luxury amid such devastation. But by midday, most had overcome their reservations and were venturing ashore. “The idea to relax so close to the death and destruction was definitely awkward,” says Daniel Melleby, another passenger. “But it became clear pretty quickly that the people there were very happy and relieved to see us.”
While many have criticized the cruise line’s decision to proceed with planned trips to the Haiti port just days after the quake, many more have argued that canceling scheduled stops would only hurt the already struggling Haitian economy. The passengers themselves have held both views. Some note surges of pride as they watched pallets of supplies being unloaded from the cruise ship, others say they spent more on local wares than they normally would have, and most describe the stop as more somber than others along the same route. “I believe it was the right decision to support Haiti financially,” says one passenger, who gave her name only as Linda. “But I could not bring myself to enjoy anything on Labadee.” The ambivalence underscores what some say is a persistent, if not always obvious, uneasiness between wealthy vacationers and the struggling countries they like to frequent.