Jason Cochran

Stuff you never knew you never knew

Labadee Island beggar

Do not feed the humans: Royal Caribbean’s staff asked us to ignore this beggar

Cruise ship corporations are capable of treating others with dignity and kindness, as I wrote about in yesterday’s post about Oasis of the Seas‘ discovery of a raft of Cuban refugees, and they are famous for providing economic opportunities for workers from disadvantaged nations. But just as often, they seem to be caught up in murkier accusations of unleashing environmental mayhem, obscuring independent investigation, and exploiting poorer economies in order to staff their megaships at a cheap price.

Those horror tales have been well documented, and the lines often counter the accusations with reminders that they adhere to the laws as currently written. An excellent place to find sourced documentation of watchdog stories in the cruise industry is CruiseLawNews.com, a site that happened to notice my Cuban refugee tweets two days ago.

Royal Caribbean came to Labadee, a somewhat isolated coastal town on the north coast of Haiti, in 1985. On a lease, it converted a peninsula of jungled farmland into a beach paradise sealed by a fence from the rest of this desperately impoverished nation. The cruise line affixed an SM service mark to the name of the village to protect its investment. It’s now in the first years of a renewed, 99-year lease on the property.

Other cruise lines, including Disney, Norwegian, and Carnival in the Bahamas, also maintain contracted areas in the Caribbean. By scheduling a day at one of these areas instead of a public port, cruise lines can control the beach experience while keeping most of the passengers’ expenditures for themselves. Going to ports with poor free foot exploration options (for example, Falmouth, Jamaica, the next stop after Haiti for Oasis of the Seas) is a clever new method cruise lines are using to keep tourists either on board or on shore excursions, both of which keep profits in the family.

In the notoriously corrupt nation of Haiti, 80% of people live below the poverty line, and two-thirds of the population has no job. Port-au-Prince, recently obliterated by an earthquake that killed tens of thousands, may be 85 miles away as the crow flies, but the twisting and poorly maintained mountain roads place it more like 140 miles distant. Not that Royal Caribbean’s tourists have the option of seeing it, or even the smaller city of Cap-Haitien, which is just six miles from Labadee. Armed guards patrol the cruise line’s idyll just out of sight of the pampered cruisers.

Gesturing beggar at Labadee

Translation: “Come feed me over there, where you can lob food over the double fence.”

Nomadic Matt and I, who were transfixed by the barbed wire fence from the moment we saw it, were sampling the abundance of the Columbus Cove buffet when we noticed a young man in the woods. The youth was carrying an empty white dinner plate, and he mimed eating from it before gesturing purposefully to his right. He’s hungry, he was telling anyone who happened to notice him, and would like someone to toss him some food from around the back of the nearby toilet block.

So, as a few other young men join him on the other side of the barbed wire, Matt and I get a bunch of bananas and apples from the buffet. Because the beggar wants us to toss the food in a place were it won’t be as obvious, we can’t shake the feeling that we’re doing something sneaky. But they’re only bananas! We have no money, and the double fence is keeping us well apart.

As we head around back of the building, a sentry in a cheerful yellow tee-shirt halts us and, in broken English, asks us not to “make trouble” by feeding those people.  He’s very nice, it seems like the word he says most is “please,” but his point is solid and pleading. He obviously lives on the island and gets his paycheck from the cruise line. And he would like us to avoid this whole thing.

“Does that mean those men don’t eat?” I asked.

“There is Haitian restaurant for those people,” he says.

The image of a Haitian restaurant full of beggars, reading menus and smoothing napkins on their laps, feels ridiculous. But Matt and I agree, reluctantly. We have to trust this man even though it’s in his personal interest to back the corporation. He knows more than we do.

It reminds me of what they tell you at Yosemite: Don’t feed the bears or they may become aggressive. At Labadee SM, you may not give a man a banana.

There’s a string of artisan stalls, and we’re only allowed to spend money on local items there. Here, the vendors, each of them selected for admittance based on criteria we don’t know, chatter and engage tourists the way they might outside these chain link walls. I buy some rusty old Haiti license plates from an old man with an apparent eye ailment. Matt gives away the bananas meant for the banished beggars; either out of hunger of furtiveness, one of the vendors has stuffed it into his mouth before we’re more than 20 feet away.
Labadee fence

The double fence, with barbed wire, that keeps Royal Caribbean tourists in (and spending) and poor Haitians out (and begging)

There is no question that Royal Caribbean cannot help all of Haiti, a nation that the rest of the world has written off as a basket case.  There is no question that it has helped Haitians in that area, and the future may prove the cruise line’s presence here helped lift a much of the locality out of illiteracy and poverty.

There is also no question that Royal Caribbean is, at least in the general sense, sensitive to widespread Haitian need even as it basks in the benefit of sweetheart economic development deals. It used its liners to ferry food and supplies to the country after the 2010 earthquake, and everyone from the United Nations (which still keeps order all over the country) on down to the local Haitian government agrees that the $10-per-head port tax helps. And employing some 230 local workers supplies something that could not be easily replaced by an industry that is as stable, as humane, or as scrupulously observed, relatively speaking, as a publicly traded cruise line.

But there is also no question that these beggars exist, and that Royal Caribbean did not want us to interact with them in any way. When Matt asked a Haitian employee if cruise passengers could visit Labadee village, which is just a quick local ferry ride away, the local became visibly uncomfortable and began to sidle away from the conversation. Outsiders are not to be exposed to the “real” Haiti, no matter how seasoned they are.

Just a moment before, the same man had gone out of his way to declare the cruise line has made self-improvement, income, education, and literacy a reality for this part of the coast. Without them, he said, things would be much different. We are not, however, permitted to check out the town on our own as long as we arrive aboard the cruise line’s vessels.

Most cruise passengers didn’t have the presence of mind to notice any of this. A fair number seemed in a stupor about their current location in the universe. (“I hear Haiti is supposed to be a really poor country,” offered one rum-tipsy passenger as she rearranged her lounge chair.) A few others probably noticed but decided there was nothing they could do. The very few who notice and try to help are told not to. Tropical islands are not tropical paradises, no matter what off-the-shelf consumerist fantasy you want to believe when you grip that cold mai tai.

These are the people who could benefit most from an exchange of bananas.

Haitian beggar outside Royal Caribbean's private resort area

Searching for the next opportunity at Labadee

If you are not permitted to demonstrate charity or adventurous curiosity in Haiti, you’d hope that magnanimity is easier on board. Unfortunately, that comes with hurdles as well. At the end of the week’s cruise, Royal Caribbean gives customers the option of pre-buying gratuities for their servers. Our assistant waiter, a man from Istanbul, works four meal services, two jobs, and something like 15 hours daily, but the cruise line’s tip package would grant him $2.15 from me a day. Our main waiter, a young man from Mumbai, would get $3.75 a day.

My servers would never broach the topic of tipping, but anyone who has been to India knows the value of it. I went to Guest Services to inform the cruise line that I want to charge their gratuities to my account, but that I want to give more than these paltry tips. But no. I was told that Royal Caribbean did not give me the option of giving more. I was to accept these miserably low amounts. The only other option, besides not tipping at all (which, revoltingly, many guests choose) would be to scrounge up enough cash of my own—despite the fact the ship’s payment system is cashless and one of the ship’s ATMs has been broken the entire time.

“It’s not good that Royal Caribbean makes it so hard to tip these men more,” I told my Guest Services representative, a Spaniard. “These men work 16 hours a day, and they’re away from home for months at a time.”

She gave me a defeated smile. “Unfortunately, not everyone thinks the way you do,” she said. Which is probably why she said “Hold on a minute,” disappeared in back, and returned to tell me she bent rules to help me draw cash without a service fee so that I could properly tip these people.

So you see: As with everything, the story is murky. The cruise line does good things, and yet it cannot do enough, and it has no room for your own outreach efforts. The system is inflexible, as massive systems must be to operate predictably.

Which is why when you take a Royal Caribbean cruise, you should bring lots of extra cash, but don’t bother with bananas.

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57 comments. Add a Comment:

  1. Anita says:

    I wasn’t able to read all comments but I do live about 5 minutes away from Labadee. I’m Haitian/American and moved back to haiti about 5 years ago after living my entire life in The states. So I think I can understand both sides of the ‘fence’ a little.
    Like Jen said… It’s sad but true you feed one begger and others will pick up on it and a lot will come and will ruin a positive vacationing experience for many. (Which is usually the reason people come on a cruise.)
    If you would like to see the real Haiti there are many great hotels in Cap haiti (the city where Labadee is actually located.) there is Cormier Beach club which sits right on the beach, is safe, and will allow you to see the real Haiti.
    That being said Royal Carribbean is a vital part of our economy here in cap. If something happens and they cannot come for a week or 2 there is practically a drought for EVERYONE! Rich and poor are affected when the cruise does not dock. Think about it. A local who is cleaning the bathroom receives, let’s say, $20 usd per day. Where does she go spend it? She goes into her neighborhood and buys from her local boutiques, local haitian vendors etc. and there are hundreds of employees making that income per day which greatly stimulates the economy here. $20 is a lot for a Local to make in a day. And that is their reality when they work for the cruise line.
    Also lets say you go on an excursion run by a local ‘Rich man’. This excursion has employees who not only get paid well but also receive $25-$75 tips per day. That’s excellent and it is money that is directly entering our economy.
    If we didn’t have Royal Carribbean here a lot of us would be screwed! Things literally come to a stand still.
    My point is go to Labadee. that in itself helps us here. Tip the locals that are Royal Carribbean employees. That money will enter into our economy directly. I’m sorry but skip the bananas. (He probably didn’t want a banana anyways… Our local bananas are insanely better and we have an abundance of bananas.)
    And if you do want to see the real Haiti and help… Then take a flight, book a hotel and your help will be received gratefully!

  2. Mary Nash says:

    Haiti is a beautiful country that is undeniable in need of help. If you want to help, you might consider donating to the work doctors and nurses are doing to prevent and treat breast and cervical cancer in women caught up in the storm of poverty. If you really want to help contact Equal Health International at Equal Health.com. Questions on health issues in Haiti may be sent to Equal Health, 1431 South Ocean Blvd, Pompano Beach, Fl 33062.

  3. Larry R says:

    Will be taking RCCL cruise in Aug. 2016. Why are people feeling guilty about the conditions in Haiti. Why do you think you can throw some apples or bananas over a fence and cure hunger. I have been on excursions from other cruises and many are just a put on or show for the passengers. If you need to make yourself feel better about the conditions in Haiti get involved in a REAL organization that helps financially. Make your Donation Take your Tax deduction and pat yourself on your back. I live in Florida and there are MANY Haitian Families that need help. There are many Hispanic, Caribbean Island families and there are PLENTY of Homeless and Poor Caucasians that need help too. Go to a mission go to a food bank, soup kitchen plenty of ways you can HELP RIGHT HERE IN AMERICA.

  4. CONSERVATIVE AND MATURE says:

    When I take a cruise, I am on vacation. If you want to help an impoverished nation, DON’T GO ON A CRUISE. Spend YOUR money any way you want. I expect that almost every post to this site will GIVE, GIVE, GIVE all of their extra income and possessions to help end poverty. Anything less and you have personally failed.

    As far as socialism ending poverty, when and where has that ever worked. If you steal the wealth of a business, corporation, individual or country, you will only have short term success. You can only steal wealth once, then the makers will join the takers of society and there will be no wealth to steal.

    If you force RCCL to leave Haiti, then they will take me to other destinations of my choosing. Remember, I choose to book a cruise. I have several other vacation options that compete with cruising. Sure, RCCL makes money from this venture, but there are several hundred local that also benefit immediately, as well as those on the government dole.

  5. go-indochine says:

    Great experience. I think you was very brave. So unique article from you. Looking for more in the future.

  6. Rusty Soul says:

    Helping the people at the fence will only make it worse. More will come and the killing robbing and HIV will just spread. Fact is that many beggars are just the dregs of the people, and would kill or rape you for anything they can get. Trust the aid of organizations that do help to see that it is fair and doing the job mission right. The corruption is so bad and the help you give will just make them look for more free help, like welfare is in America. They will never learn to do anything else but beg for more and more till you are taking care of them. WELFARE IS NO HELP AT ALL!

  7. Trish says:

    Read what Jen says on Feb 11, 2016. I have met many well intentioned people and whether they know it or not they treat these people like zoo animals. All well and good to know other cultures but these people are all basicly the same as us. The exception is they are horribly poor. They do not want to be stared at or pitied. Giving them a few dollars will get them though a few days but what after that. You want to make things better , find out what you can do to really make a difference or better yet how we can sponsor them into your country. The cruise lines do give them some jobs. Don’t try and take that away

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