When I first heard that Royal Caribbean was planning to dock its cruise ship off Haiti, as scheduled, mere days after one of the most deadly natural disasters in this hemisphere, like many I pursed my lips and shook my head. How could it be that a cruise ship could roll in to Haitian waters for fun in the sun, while hundreds of thousands are dead, dying or grievously injured?

The question occurred to people on the ship too, according to this oft-quoted Guardian article :

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”.

“I just can’t see myself sunning on the beach, playing in the water, eating a barbecue, and enjoying a cocktail while [in Port-au-Prince] there are tens of thousands of dead people being piled up on the streets, with the survivors stunned and looking for food and water,” one passenger wrote on the Cruise Critic internet forum.

“It was hard enough to sit and eat a picnic lunch at Labadee before the quake, knowing how many Haitians were starving,” said another. “I can’t imagine having to choke down a burger there now.”

Certainly, there’s visceral level of queasiness that results from juxtaposing the images of cavorting cruising tourists with the images of wholesale death and destruction in Haiti. It seems like a “let them eat cake” level of callousness.  But I would argue that refusing to go ashore, especially when Royal Caribbean pledges all its net profits from the visit to disaster relief, is making a choice on the basis of appearances rather than logic. It’s a choice that allows travelers on the ship to feel better about themselves and their position in the world, rather than doing any actual good at all. It’s a panacea.

Yes. It hardly seems fair that while some people are dying and starving and thirsty, others are living it up, with not only plenty of food and water, but with extras like booze and ziplines and hammocks. Inequality is a serious problem in this world, and it’s one that any traveler who ventures past the boundaries of wealthy nations must grapple with if they’re paying even the slightest bit of attention. Check out the UN Human Development Index, which is a composite index which takes into account life expectancy, access to knowledge and standard of living – more than half the world places in the medium to low development categories. (And Haiti placed in the “medium” development category, for what it’s worth.)

While I understand that it feels unseemly to be eating, drinking and enjoying while others suffer, and especially in the face of such extreme suffering, the fact is, even without a natural disaster, this is happening every single day. The inequities of the world don’t disappear simply because you opt to take your entertainment inside a cruise ship, rather than disembarking in Labedee, or choosing a ship with an itinerary that goes to different port, or even if you’re traveling somewhere else entirely.  It is a moral problem to be a person of privilege in a world where the majority of people are not.

There are many ways in which you can choose to deal with this moral problem, but the economic impact of travel is indisputable. International tourism generates over one trillion dollars a year, more than $3 billion dollars a day. These dollars generate jobs, income, access to health care, education, mobility. (In some cases it even protects natural resources, since it’s often natural resources that attract tourists in the first place.) No, I’m not saying tourism is a perfect solution to the world’s woes, or that its receipts are equally distributed or even fairly distributed —  but countries that cannot attract their share of tourist dollars have a hard time digging themselves out of the hole.   Look at the 24 countries that qualify as “Low Human Development” according to the UN.  Most are an in Africa, a few are in outright civil war, but none of them are major international tourist destinations at this point.

The port in Labadee is unsuitable for cargo ships, it can’t be used in the relief effort.  It is suitable for cruise ships.  There are two hundred people that are employed in this area, and they are doubtlessly experiencing a huge strain on their own personal resources as their country lies in shambles around them. How would losing their jobs, even temporarily, help these people?  If you’re planning to travel, and want to help, booking a trip on this ship isn’t all that different that doing something that you’d normally do, like dining out, or purchasing a product on Etsy, or the like. (Giving directly is better, of course.)

I also recognize that there are arguments to be made about what Royal Caribbean can and should be doing. I’m generally persuaded by attorney Jim Walker’s argument that Royal Caribbean could and probably should be doing more in Haiti. But when I asked Walker for a clarification on Twitter today, he said “I’m not proposing leaving Labadee, rather paying Haiti fairly – $100 per psngr = $600,000 rather than $36,000 per week.”

Still, common sense says that something is better than nothing. So if you’re on board the ship — or a have already booked your itinerary through Haiti, or are contemplating a cruise holiday, I urge you to go ashore, spend some money, spend a little extra, even. In any event, don’t discount Haiti out of hand. Yes, if you go elsewhere, you’ll likely avoid this particularly uncomfortable confrontation of your own luck and fortune stacked up against the misery of many others. That’s not for everyone. But remember, the choice to go elsewhere — and certainly to stay aboard the ship — won’t make anything easier for anyone but yourself.

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Alison J. Stein

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