A cruise ship's impact on Haiti

The sun was bright, the sky was blue, the ocean was turquoise and the beach was white. Not far away were mountains draped with lush foliage and tropical birds singing as they flew among flowers. A number of vacationers were parasailing, snorkeling, kayaking and swimming in the water, though most lounged on the sand slowly sipping cocktails, their sun-soaked bodies on display. Some were napping in cabanas as others enjoyed ocean view massages. Nearby, a local musical group was humming soothing Caribbean tunes. Within minutes a shuttle was driving up to take me and other guests the half kilometer away to the Artisans' Market of open-air boutiques, cafes and more idyllic scenery.

It was paradise. It was Haiti.


This May was the second time I visited Labadee on the northern coast of Haiti with a Royal Caribbean International cruise ship. Both times Labadee's natural beauty, pristine beaches and efficiently-run services did not cease to amaze me. Indeed the place was so beautiful, peaceful and first-rate that many of my cruise mates were unaware we were in Haiti. Some thought that Labadee was an island nation of its own. Even fewer knew that just kilometers away, a sturdy fence, camouflaged by bushes, separated the haves from the have-nots. On the other side were Haitians living in shacks, scraping to make ends meet while crime and corruption continued.

With this realization, at a first glance, one might be disgusted with Royal Caribbean, a rich, powerful, first-world entity that came into Labadee in the '90s to lease this private haven. It initially seemed that this cruise company wanted to take full advantage of the beautiful beaches while maximizing its own profits, milking the local habitat for every drop it was worth. Yet, at a closer look, one had to acknowledge the vast amount of time, investment and money Royal Caribbean put into Labadee. In addition to spending millions building a cruise-friendly pier, water and electricity infrastructure, a paved road, a zip line, a roller coaster, picnic areas, shops, restrooms and administrative and residential buildings, it has and continues to employ a couple hundred Haitians for construction, administration, maintenance, security and retail, providing them with regular income they would not otherwise have. Moreover during the cruise season, Royal Caribbean brings thousands of vacationers, mostly Americans, to Labadee each week, encouraging business for local artists and giving each side a chance to meet the other.

Though most visitors here will never see a poverty-stricken Haitian village, nor would most Haitians here ever experience the luxuries of a cruise ship, each side had something the other wanted and was able to form a relationship where transactions were mutually beneficial.

On my recent visit, I had a conversation with a local who worked at one of the boutiques. He told me he was an employee of Royal Caribbean and that some of the bracelets he was selling were made by his grandmother. Every morning he came through the fence to work and every evening he went back to return home. He said he has met many Americans over the years, learned a few things about the U.S., and was happy to know these visitors thought Labadee was beautiful. When I asked him what was on the other side of the fence he hesitated and said, "You don't want to go there."

Given the stark differences between Labadee and the rest of the country, it was hard not to have second thoughts about this arrangement. Still Royal Caribbean's involvement has brought out the best of Haiti. Though the future of Labadee remains uncertain, this involvement not only developed the area but opened the door for conversation and provided a bird's eye view for the world to what a clean, safe and functioning Haiti could be. It has generated jobs for many and even boosted the economy for those on the other side of the fence. Furthermore, the work ethic, discipline and understanding of American culture these local employees have acquired are invaluable and may be of use in furthering U.S.-Haiti relations as well as the future development of the country.

With the criticisms America has received in recent years for its approach to overseas development, this example should encourage first-world entities that are able to creatively get involved and invest abroad in places where they can come to a mutually beneficial agreement, opening the door for communication with the other side and developing the best features of what these places and people have to offer.

Jade Wu ( is a Washington D.C. lawyer who has worked in several developing countries — including Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan — and written a book about international development that is now in the editing phase.