Saturday, January 15, 2011

One Year Later, Royal Caribbean’s Educational “How the Other Half Live” Cruises to Haiti Still Going Strong

LABADEE, Haiti -- There’s an old Haitian proverb: “Behind the mountains, there are mountains.” Behind those mountains are smaller mountains. Behind those smaller mountains is an enclosure. And behind that enclosure is a tropical paradise rented out to Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines by the Haitian government.

Despite the January 2010 earthquake, Royal Caribbean's Independence of the Seas went ahead with its scheduled stop at a fenced-in, private Haitian beach surrounded by armed guards, leaving its passengers to party just a few kilometers from one of the worst humanitarian disasters in the region’s history. That was a bold move which paid off well for the company. This month marks the one-year anniversary of both the life-shattering quake and Royal Caribbean’s introduction of educational cruise packages to the ravaged land. According to business analysts and relief workers, both are still going strong: Haiti remains a chaotic limbo of displaced souls, and drunken revelers from luxury liners come and go with alarming regularity.

The Florida-based cruise company leases a picturesque forested peninsula in Labadee, which includes five pristine beaches. The Haitian government and Royal Caribbean struck the deal to bolster the local Haitian economy, which is comprised of four government officials. Despite the 2010 catastrophe -- invisible behind a walled 12-foot fortification -- passengers are encouraged to “cut loose” with watersports, barbecues and trinket shopping at a local craft market, which the cruise company also owns and operates.

As a result of the highly profitable trips to Haiti, the company is planning a series of special cruises to other disaster areas.

“We believe it’s educational for passengers to see how people of other, poorer nations must live and sometimes die,” said Marybethany Wersorgt, a “destination coordinator” with Royal Caribbean. “It makes our guests appreciate what they have at home. It’s just too bad we missed the boat on the Chilean quake back in April.”

A travel expert endorsed Royal Caribbean’s decision.

“People who take cruises are not millionaires,” he said. “They can’t afford airfare and lodgings to exotic locales. A cruise makes better financial sense, and in return they get to feel like royalty for a week. Seeing this kind of rampant devastation really drives that sense of privilege home.”

And yet, the company has faced some criticism. Royal Caribbean justifies its decision to keep docking the Independence of the Seas in Labadee as part of an ongoing humanitarian aid effort.

Wersorgt explained, “We’re cooking tons of food 24 hours a day. We know our passengers don’t eat most of it, so instead of throwing perfectly good scraps overboard, we drop them off behind this wall. We assume that the Haitians come out at night and take the food back with them to their huts. If not, maybe animals eat it, but then the Haitians can always eat those animals. Either way, we believe it’s working.”

Wersorgt also told reporters that Royal Caribbean’s attachment to Haiti goes far beyond business.

“We feel just terrible about what happened in the country last year,” Wersorgt continued. “We employ over 200 janitors who may actually be from Haiti. The money we bring to the country is fundamental to its recovery.”

When asked if ships planned to send engineers or medical personnel ashore to assist in relief efforts while in ports plagued by disasters, Wersorgt said, “It all depends on whether those resources have liberty that day. These are union workers, and we just can’t afford the liability. It wouldn’t avail the Haitian people, or the people of any distressed nation we visit on these educational cruises, to have union lawyers nosing around.”

Some travelers, however, have found their days at port less interesting than promised. One passenger recalls his distress.

“I just couldn’t see myself sunning on the beach, playing in the water, eating a barbecue, and enjoying a cocktail while tens of thousands of dead people were being piled up on the streets, with the survivors stunned and looking for food and water. It was depressing. I’ve asked for a refund, but Royal Caribbean is refusing. I may have to file a legal complaint.”

But other passengers take the experience in the meaningful way Royal Caribbean has intended. Jill Hrokst from Iowa called the vacation packages “a real eye opener.”

“At first, it was hard to sit and eat a picnic lunch at Labadee,” she said.

“The scene was awful. I couldn’t even choke down a second burger, but then they brought out the local dancers and opened the zip lines. I got an incredible view of the area while flying overhead on the lines, and it really did make me appreciate what little I have. I forgot all about my stupid corporate job and my cell phone bills and my car payment and all that money I lost in last week’s bridge game. But it also gives you a feeling of ‘seize the day.’ When I get home, I’m just going to buy that iPad I’ve been wanting and finally upgrade to a Blue Ray DVD player. ‘Cause, you just never know when it’s gonna be your time.”

Royal Caribbean is now coordinating with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) weather service for future outings.

“We’re hoping to be able to forecast tsunamis, hurricanes and other natural disasters to better plan for more of these cruises,” Wersorgt said.

Carnival Cruise Lines, a strong competitor in the market, is also rumored to be planning similar vacations for its customers, with support from NOAA. Carnival will transition some of the vessels from its “Fun Ship” fleet to its newly created “Hard Ship” fleet.