Friday, January 22, 2010

Should Royal Caribbean Cruise Ships be Landing in Haiti Now?

The January 17 Guardian shows this photo of a huge white Royal Caribbean cruise ship anchored offshore at Haiti with tourists floating in the water at the private enclave the company maintains at Labadee, sixty miles from the epicenter of the earthquake:

Royal Caribbean has been blasted for bringing tourists to bask, swim, eat and drink while people were injured and dying not far from the compound. Cavorting in the sun adjacent to devastation and tragedy seemed morally repulsive to many.

Here's the ethical analysis Adam Goldstein, President and CEO of Royal Caribbean posted in his blog:
My view is this — it isn’t better to replace a visit to Labadee (or for that matter, to stay on the ship while it’s docked in Labadee) with a visit to another destination for a vacation. Why? Because being on the island and generating economic activity for the straw market vendors, the hair-braiders and our 230 employees helps with relief while being somewhere else does not help. These 500 people are going to need to support a much larger network of family and friends, including many who are in (or are missing in) the earthquake zone. Also, the north is going to bear a good part of the burden of the agony of the south, and the more economic support there is to the north, the better able the north will be to bear this burden. People enjoying themselves is what we do. People enjoying themselves in Labadee helps with relief. We support our guests who choose to help in this way which is consistent with our nearly 30 year history in Haiti.
In deliberating about the ethics of a decision we should start from a clear understanding of the facts. Goldstein doesn't tell us if the cruise ship prevented rescue and relief ships from landing. If it did, the answer is in. Rescue and relief should take first priority over all else. If these were the facts, Royal Caribbean should have paid its employees and offset the losses the vendors incurred and released the docking spaces to rescuers and relievers.

But suppose bringing in the cruise ship did not interfere with access to the island for others. What then?

If these were the facts, I believe that from an ethical perspective, Royal Caribbean should not be faulted. Had I been a passenger on the cruise ship I would have found the idea of landing at Labadee deeply unseemly, much as these two tourists quoted in the Guardian article did:
"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."

"It was hard enough to sit and eat a picnic lunch at Labadee before the quake, knowing how many Haitians were starving. I can't imagine having to choke down a burger there now."
But I would have understood Goldstein's analysis. Not landing could be seen on the analogy of not visiting a sick person because of the potentially painful contrast between our health and their debility. I've seen this happen in my medical practice, with the result that the sick person feels ever more isolated and abandoned.

In terms of ethics education, the Labadee landing created a teachable moment. If I'd been the cruise director I would have organized a meeting on the ship (a) to give information about the earthquake, (b) to present the ethical rationale for docking, (c) to hear back from the passengers, and (d) to give information about how people could contribute to the relief effort.

By chance my wife and I were on a week's holiday at Guadeloupe, 300 miles from Haiti, when the earthquake occurred. Even at that distance we experienced an element of "unseemliness" in being able to enjoy another part of the Caribbean while the Haiti tragedy unfolded. We thought of the old "There But for Fortune" Joan Baez song:
Show me the prison, show me the jail
Show me the prisoner, whose life has gone stale
And I'll show you, young man,
With so many reasons why
there but for fortune, go you or I....
While I don't see Royal Caribbean's decision to land at Labadee as unethical (assuming that rescue and relief operations were in no way harmed) I think it was unwise. It gives the appearance of callousness. The best decision would have involved ensuring that employees and vendors were kept whole in economic terms, emphasizing that Labadee was available for bringing in rescue and relief materials (even if it wasn't used that way), and making alternative arrangements for the cruise itself, presumably by landing elsewhere. This would have allowed the Haitian employees and vendors who would otherwise be serving the tourists to participate in help efforts or simply to pray and grieve. It would have been the more respectful course of action.


Anonymous said...

Interesting dilemma, but there is a third alternative. If passengers feel uneasy about it the company could ask relief coordinators where motivated tourists could pitch in, roll up their sleeves, and spend a day or two helping the victims. An all day bus trip from the cruise ship with lunch provided would not be a drain on local food resources, and if a lot of folks opted to do this, some of the resort staff would not be needed, so the company could pay them to go along and help out, explaining and interpreting for the passengers.

Relief efforts need technical people, but a lot can be accomplished by two hands and a willing heart, handing out food and supplies, comforting patients, etc. The volunteers would never be the same again, and it could be a high point of their trip, or at least an exciting story for the folks back home.

Jim Sabin said...

Dear anonymous

What a fine suggestion! Of course, unskilled tourists might not be needed or welcome, but you're right that if this option were viable, a bit of help might be delivered, and for sure the tourists who participated would have a life-changing experience. I don't know how feasible this option would have been, but it's a great idea!