“Sonje lapli ki leve mayo ou”. – Remember the rain that made your corn grow. (Haitian proverb)
After all the stark contradictions I’d witnessed in Haiti, the sharpest contrast of it all was seen during an afternoon spent at the beach in Labadie. Here along the northern coast of Haiti sit two vastly different worlds: Labadie, a small, poor Haitian seaside village and “LABADEE®”, the private trademarked beach leased by Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines since 1986.
Labadee is the largest tourist draw in all of Haiti and its beautiful, luxurious compound is a far cry from the poverty and despair witnessed right outside its gates. No Haitians are allowed within the high-wired fences and security of its pristine grounds unless they are work on the property. Inside the compound lies a fantasy world of crystal white beaches, zip-lines, inflatable rafts, watersports and all the food you can eat with a gigantic cruise ship floating in the background. Outside the compound lies poverty and despair and people living on less than the price of a beer a day.
I had heard that this was one of the most gorgeous beaches in all of Haiti and we were going to try our best to check it out even if it was supposedly private. I was armed with a few facts about the property and Royal Caribbean’s relationship to the community. A history that is shrouded in controversy yet filled with potential. A couple hundred Haitians are employed at the compound and Royal Caribbean has done some things to help the neighboring community. I was curious to see for myself what I discovered.
As we left, Cap-Haïtien I noticed a huge improvement in the roads. The same roads that took us over 8 1/2 hours to travel only 148 miles/239 kilometers from Port-au-Prince to Cap-Haïtien were dramatically better on the way to Labadee. Instead of rugged, washed out potholes some of the road was as smooth as silk and the roads that were in need of repair had an entire team of construction workers on the job with even a Chinese engineer. It was shocking to see that the roads leading to a major tourist draw were better than the roads in the nation’s capital. But it was a sign that the right money talks and perhaps it will enable Royal Caribbean to bring its estimated 600,000 tourists a year (1) who come to Labadee to get out of the private compound on excursions and visit some of Haiti’s fabulous historical and cultural sites.
The views leading up to Labadee were spellbinding. Rocky lush green shoreline and brilliant blue sea for as far as the eye could see. White sandy beaches and luxurious houses and resorts. It felt like we were in another country! This was not the Haiti I’d seen over the past five days.
In the early 90s, tourists had no idea that they were actually in Haiti when they were in Labadee because Royal Caribbean had marketed the destination as “Hispaniola”, the name of the island Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic. A savvy journalist got word of this gossip, letting the word out and creating bad press for the cruise line. Today, it is marketed on Royal Caribbean’s website as “Labadee®: The Ultimate Private Beach and only Royal Caribbean can take you there”.
Some other missteps happened over the years that has generated controversy especially after the 2010 earthquake when the cruise line continued to dock ashore in Labadee while ten of thousands of people in Haiti were suffering and in despair in the aftermath of Haiti’s deadliest earthquake in history. However in my opinion the most tragic part of it all is the missed opportunity to truly help Haiti and its people who remain the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.
Hundreds of thousands of tourists with money to spend come to the beaches of Labadee every single year yet very little money goes back to the people. Despite employing Haitians who live in the nearby poverty-stricken village of Labadie and also donating some money to help improve the village and help after the 2010 earthquake (2), there is much more that could be done to improve the situation.
Everything in Labadie is owned and operated by Royal Caribbean meaning that all the earnings from the restaurants and activities go directly into the hands of Royal Caribbean not to the local people. A few locals are allowed to sell their merchandise within the property but nothing is locally owned or operated. Furthermore, the thousands of passengers that enter Labadee spend 6 hours there yet never leave the compound. This is a huge missed opportunity for Haiti’s tourism when two of Haiti’s most significant, historical monuments, the Citadelle Henry and the Palais Sans Souci lie only a bus-ride away.
Yet tourists never see anything outside of the confines of the fenced in property. Obviously most have come to enjoy the beach however imagine the difference it would bring to the Haitian economy if those who wanted to were able to use their money elsewhere. This is the entire idea behind sustainable travel. Investing in the local community you visit. It has enormous potential and the government of Haiti is trying its best to boost tourism. However, it is a tough sell.
As we followed the road leading down around the high barbed wire fences of Labadee, it was hard to not feel slightly enraged. I had spent the past week visiting this beautiful country and learning about its rich culture, history and heritage and there sat this utopia that was closed off to its own people. Inside there was clean water, electricity, food, beauty, excess, fun and adventure. It was a completely different inside this bubble of prosperity than the reality of Haitians right outside its gates where people live in unfathomable conditions. I’ve travelled a lot in the developing world and I have seen this so often. Yet in my eyes it just seems so wrong.
I felt rather sneaky as we parked our car outside the huge barbed wire fence surrounding Labadee and found a local boat taxi to take us inside. We were able to get in through the “back door” and check out the beach and bars for ourselves. We didn’t stay long as I personally found it very uninteresting. Ultra thin young woman in tiny bikinis smoking cigarettes, drinking beer and taking selfies on the beach while the guys watched. Families riding Disney-esque zip lines without a care in the world. It just wasn’t my kind of place. However, the natural setting was absolutely stunning and I can see why tourists and Haitians alike (if they were allowed) would love to come here. There is beauty in Haiti.
I was grateful when Nat recommended we ditch Labadee and take a ride out on a water taxi to see the real Haiti. For $100, we rented our own bateau-taxi to drive us out along the Haitian coastline and visit a tiny little island called Ile A Rat. The local driver was thrilled to be earning so much money. Apparently Royal Caribbean has their own boats and transportation meaning he rarely got this lucky. Local boat drivers are typically used to transport the local workers from Labadie to Labadee and never earned close to $100. $100 is an awful lot of money in Haiti, where 59% of Haitians live under the national poverty line of US$ 2.42 per day and over 24% live under the national extreme poverty line of US$1.23 per day. (3)
As we set off, the warm clear water sprayed on my sun-kissed face and I was at ease. This is what sustainable tourism means in Haiti. Getting out of your comfort zone, employing a local boat driver to see the country and learning about the local culture. Our driver wasn’t too thrilled with Royal Caribbean and said in his humble opinion they haven’t done much. He grumbled that they had improved some things in his community such as built a small school and brought in running water, a luxury in Haiti. But like most Haitians he wishes that more could be done, especially by his own government.
I couldn’t believe how insanely beautiful it was. Haiti has so much beauty yet rarely do people see it.
Our driver followed the coastline before veering off towards the tiny island, Isle a Rat, in the distance. People come here for the day to enjoy its gorgeous pure white sandy beach. Unfortunately we had arrived when the beach was closing and only had a few minutes to check it out. It was such a magical place!
Reluctantly, we got back on the boat and cruised the hour back to Labadie. If I return to Haiti, I am definitely going to make another visit to this magical island.
As we left Labadie, I felt a bittersweet cluster of emotions ranging from anger and disgust between understanding and hope. Obviously I can’t fault Royal Caribbean for bringing tourists to Haiti even if it is to see only a private beach that no Haitians can see. However, I do see a glimmer of hope that someday companies like Royal Caribbean will bring tourists outside the compound and truly help bring in valuable tourism revenue to Haiti. Haiti desperately needs it, and what a tragedy so many people are missing out on seeing all of the good and bad, beautiful and ugly, and immense contradictions of such an amazing place.
- Haitian-Caribbean News Network, “Haiti’s Local Community to Benefit from Additional Fee From Cruise Passengers”. August 18, 2014.
- Per the same article above: The Haitian Government and Royal Caribbean has agreed to increase the cruise fees per passengers and will pay $12 US per visitor instead of the $10 US paid so far. $2 per passenger will be reinvested in the local community.
- The World Bank: Haiti Overview, 2012 Household Survery
Worth a read:
- “Cruises to Haiti Stir Controversy”, Newsweek. 1/27/10
- Haiti Cruise Stops: Without this, We don’t eat”. NBC News. 1/22/2010