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 a Caribbean cruise liner by the Haitian government.
Despite the January 12 earthquake, the cruise ship 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.
The Florida-based cruise company leases a picturesque forested peninsula in Labadee, which includes five pristine beaches. The Haitian government and the cruise company struck the deal to bolster the local Haitian economy, which is comprised of four government officials. Despite the recent catastrophe -- invisible behind a walled 12-foot fortification -- passengers were encouraged to "cut loose" with watersports, barbecues and trinket shopping at a local craft market, which the cruise company also owns and operates.
The company is planning a series of special cruises to disaster areas. "We believe it's educational for passengers to see how people of other, poorer nations must live and sometimes die. It makes our guests appreciate what they have at home."
A travel expert endorsed the decision. "People who take cruises are not millionaires. 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. The cruise line justified its decision to dock the ship as part of a humanitarian aid effort. A spokesperson for the company said, "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're going to drop them off behind this wall. We expect that the Haitians will come out at night and take the food back with them to their huts."
"We feel just terrible about what happened in Haiti," the company's vice president of marketing, Debbie Cardelli, told the press. "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 the ship planned to send its engineers or medical personnel ashore to assist in relief efforts, Cardelli said, "We asked, but they had liberty that day. These are union workers and we just can't afford the liability. It wouldn't avail the Haitian people anything to have union lawyers nosing around."
Some travelers found the day 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 there are tens of thousands of dead people 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 they are refusing. I may have to file a legal complaint."
But other passengers took the experience in the meaningful way it was intended. Jill Hrokst from Iowa called the vacation "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 iPhone 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."
The company 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 for more of these cruises," Cardelli said.
A strong competitor in the market is planning similar vacations for its customers with support from NOAA. This cruise line will transition some of the vessels from its "Fun Ship" fleet to its newly created "Hard Ship" fleet.