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.
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 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.
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.