Is it wrong that cruise ships are still taking vacationers to Haiti?
Cruise lines have been under fire this week for continuing to bring tourists to Haiti. Despite the brutal circumstances facing the majority of the country in the wake of the earthquake, it’s mostly business as usual for the cruise industry. Critics have called it unseemly, repulsive even, for wealthy vacationers to be enjoying sun and sand where there is currently a state of deep crisis.
Take [this article](http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/jan/17/cruise-ships-haiti-earthquake) by Robert Booth in *The Guardian*. Booth writes:
Sixty miles from Haiti’s devastated earthquake zone, luxury liners dock at private beaches where passengers enjoy jetski rides, parasailing and rum cocktails delivered to their hammocks.
The 4,370-berth Independence of the Seas, owned by Royal Caribbean International, disembarked at the heavily guarded resort of Labadee on the north coast on Friday; a second cruise ship, the 3,100-passenger Navigator of the Seas is due to dock.
The Florida cruise company leases a picturesque wooded peninsula and its five pristine beaches from the government for passengers to “cut loose” with watersports, barbecues, and shopping for trinkets at a craft market before returning on board before dusk. Safety is guaranteed by armed guards at the gate.
The decision to go ahead with the visit has divided passengers. The ships carry some food aid, and the cruise line has pledged to donate all proceeds from the visit to help stricken Haitians. But many passengers will stay aboard when they dock; one said he was “sickened.”
I have to admit that, at a visceral level, at least part of me feels the same way the critics do. There is something a bit “off” about having fun in the sun while others are suffering so nearby. It’s a bit like having a picnic next to a funeral. It just seems tacky, maybe even insulting. But is there anything really wrong with it?
First, it’s worth asking where this reaction is coming from. That’s not an easy question to answer, but I think it’s possible that, in criticizing the cruise lines, many North Americans are projecting the guilt they feel about the contrast between their comfortable middle-class lives and the seemingly hopeless distress being experienced by so many Haitians.
While they suffer, our lives go on pretty much as usual. Perhaps it pains us a little to think about tourists – people like us, more or less – putting themselves in a situation where that contrast is all the more striking.
But I think this is a situation where we need to think things through a little more. Sometimes our gut – our moral intuition – is an important indicator. When something *feels* wrong, there’s often a good reason for it. But not everything that seems “icky” is unethical. Sometimes our gut is misled by our prejudice or simply our unfamiliarity with a situation.
I believe that’s part of what’s going on here. Our moral intuitions simply aren’t well-calibrated for a situation like the one we see in Haiti. That isn’t to say that we ought to be comfortable with the idea of affluent Canadians and Americans playing beach volleyball while a hundred kilometres away Haitians are being buried in mass graves. The contrast is too big to ignore. But that doesn’t automatically mean we should jump to the conclusion that some grievous moral wrong is being committed.
For one thing, it’s important to note that the cruise line mentioned in the story above, Royal Caribbean, is donating $1 million to the relief effort. That puts it among the very top tier of corporate donors. And when one of its ships docked in Haiti earlier this week so that its passengers could enjoy the beach, it also dropped off “forty pallets of rice, beans, powdered milk, water, and canned foods” with more on the way.
Could the cruise line do more? Sure they could. We all could. But that’s very different from saying that what they’re doing is wrong.
The cruise company is doing at least some good, both by contributing to the Haitian economy (by bringing tourists who spend money, for example) and by making philanthropic contributions. Of course, that in itself doesn’t automatically make it OK to continue bringing tourists to Haiti during the crisis. Maybe the contrast between wealthy vacationers and desperate Haitians is just too repugnant to be overcome by mere money and aid – it’s a bit too much like waving a hundred-dollar bill in a poor man’s face and then giving him a dollar. Maybe.
But can we really say it’s wrong to have fun (or to make money by taking people to have fun) “too close” to poverty and desperation? It’s hard to imagine making that a general rule. Should poor countries simply be scratched off our list of places to spend our vacation dollars? Can we really draw a clear line between Haiti and, say, Brazil or Mexico or Kenya?
Haiti itself is, of course, a terribly poor and deeply troubled place at the best of times. It’s the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. Its per-person GDP is about one-thirtieth that of Canada. It placed 14th on the Fund for Peace’s [2009 Failed States Index](http://www.fundforpeace.org/web/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=99&Itemid=323). So, if it’s unethical for cruise ships to patronize Haiti’s ports *this week*, what about next week? Or next month? Or next year? When will Haiti be sufficiently stable that wealthy vacationers can feel okay again about visiting (and thereby contributing to the Haitian economy)?
The last thing we want is for the world to think of Haiti as being subject to some sort of quarantine. It’s important for the world to know that Haiti is, in at least some small way, still open for business. And I think it’s worth a bit of awkwardness to send that signal.