This morning I was stopped in my tracks by a piece by Mike Thomson on Radio 4′s Today programme about the child slaves of Haiti. It was particularly timely given this week’s maiden voyage of the collosal cruise ship, Oasis of the Seas, to Haiti.
A few days ago I posted a comment along the lines of ‘my idea of hell’ on Twitter in response to a BBC website piece from on board the Oasis of the Seas. I’m not going to pretend that my opinions are unbiased, I just do not like the idea of being on a floating behemoth staring out at the world passively ticking off sites seen.
After I saw the images of the ship, I went onto the Royal Caribbean website to see where on earth they were going to park this vast ship.
Being one of the worlds’ poorest countires, I’ll admit to being surprised when I saw Haiti on their list of ports. But then it’s not really Haiti as you might imagine, it’s certainly not the Haiti of the child slaves, it’s an enclave on the north coast called Labadee.
Labadee appears to be a slab of Haiti privately owned by Royal Caribbean for the exclusive use of its cruise guests. It’s a massive beach theme park by the looks of it. Zip lines, water park, swim up bars, jet skis. Not my cup of tea by any means but clearly many of the +/- 350,000 annual visitors have a great time. As of today, Labadee is the number one attraction in Haiti according to Trip Advisor.
Now for the other side of the equation.
As one might expect, the Mike Thomson piece was generally very upsetting. It would seem that there are families so poor that they give away their children to better off families in the hope that they will be fed, clothed and educated. What many of these children are actually delivered into is a life of slavery.
So, how on earth am I going to tie the Oasis of the Seas to a piece on child slavery in Haiti?
Just to get this absolutely straight, I don’t claim any link between the two. I’m just struck by the acute juxtaposition of the cruise resort and Haiti’s extraordinary poverty and misery.
In my opinion, it is a great privilege to be able to travel and see incredible places. But with that privilege comes the responsibility to travel with open eyes and open minds.
That’s reflected in our holidays. If you come on holiday to Peru with us you will see amazing things and stay in charming, comfortable places, meet interesting people. You will also see some poverty, you will see at least some of the contrasts and toughness of everyday life for many people in Peru.
I don’t see how a large cruise ship or a ring-fenced resort can ever offer passengers a meaningful interaction with a destination. I don’t think that makes for responsible or sustainable tourism, at least as I see it.
So, in the great tradition of more questions than answers, here are some questions:
1) Would it be better if Royal Caribbean didn’t go to Haiti at all?
2) Even if their presence is of only very marginal benefit to the island, is something better than nothing?
3) Do passengers know what’s on the other side of the fence? Do they care?
4) Should they?
5) Is large ship cruising fundamentally irreconcilable with responsible tourism?
6) Am I just ‘having a go’ because I don’t like the idea of floating around trapped in a massive hotel with nearly 6,000 other people?
I would really love to hear other people’s thoughts on this.
By the way, the Radio 4 piece is in three parts. The remaining pieces are to be broadcast tomorrow, Friday, and presumably Saturday of this week. Please do try to listen, it is one of those peices which reminds you that radio remains a remarkably powerful medium.