Haiti: tourist paradise?

A generation or two ago, people would display the places to which they had traveled by means of stickers on their luggage. It was all very picturesque, but who has a steamer trunk nowadays? Today, the way to show off your travel cred is on a baseball cap or tee shirt. This is pretty common, and the only rule seems to be that you must never wear the logo of a place you visit while you are actually in that place. What’s the point? The locals are already aware of where they live and your fellow tourists will certainly not be impressed. Wear your Russia hat in Hawaii, for instance, and your Hawaii hat in Moscow.

Recently, I saw someone wearing a baseball cap proudly emblazoned with the word HAITI, along with a Haitian red and blue flag. Haiti? Who vacations in Haiti? Well, in fact, a lot of people do.


In 1986, Royal Caribbean Cruise Line made a deal with the Haitian government in the person of the dictator “Baby Doc” Duvalier to lease the small peninsula of Labadee, near Cape Haitian. (Named after a long ago French slave owner, no less!) The cruise ship company poured millions into landscaping, planting palm trees, building a breakwater, and, ultimately, a cruise ship dock so that they could bring cruisers to this newly created tropical paradise. The result was a beautiful series of white sand and coral beaches set at the base of the Haitian mountains. Despite the attractiveness of the place, Royal Caribbean was concerned that cruisers would be hesitant to sign up for a cruise that featured a place they associated with poverty, political unrest, disease, and voodoo. They could get enough of that at home.

So the brochures didn’t list the port as Labadee, Haiti, but counting on a certain degree of geographical ignorance, called the place Labadee, Hispaniola. Now Hispaniola is the name of the island that contains Haiti on its west side and the Dominican Republic on its east, so Labadee, Hispaniola is sort of correct in the same way that Chicago, North America is correct,but misleading to the geographically challenged. That seems to have been the point.


But now, years later, enough cruisers have been there that Royal Caribbean proudly calls it Labadee, Haiti, and sells the aforementioned Haiti hats and tee shirts. Royal Caribbean gets a private destination, the Haitian government gets a steady flow of tourist revenue and fees for each tourist who arrives, and jobs have been created for local merchants, construction companies, security companies, and support personnel. People who would have never dreamed of setting foot in Haiti, now look forward to a day on the beach there, and proudly wear a Haiti hat to brag about the experience of visiting Haiti. People who visit Labadee and say they have been to Haiti are technically correct, but so are people who have visited Disney World and say they’ve been to the United States.


Of course, the poverty, political unrest and all the other ills are still just beyond the fence at Labadee, but the revenue and exposure to the outside world generated by Labadee might help improve things in some small way. Royal Caribbean pays no rent for the 250 acres of waterfront land, but pays a $10 fee (soon to be $12) for each passenger it brings. That means about $24,000 for a smaller ship such as the Grandeur of the Seas, and as much as $60,000 for a behemoth such as the Oasis of the Seas. (Fees from drinks, jet ski rentals, the zip line, cabana rentals, etc. are kept by Royal Caribbean.) Of course, just how much of the per head money actually gets to the people who need it and not to some corrupt government official is not clear.

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