The Washington Diplomat / April 2010
By Larry Luxner
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Surrounded by crumpled buildings, garbage-filled streets and sprawling tent cities holding tens of thousands of homeless refugees, it's easy to feel hopeless about Haiti's future two months after the earthquake that killed 230,000 people and destroyed its capital, Port-au-Prince.
In any case, it's hardly the sunny destination tourists would be flocking to at the moment.
Yet Miami-based Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. has a plan to develop Haiti's tourism sector — one that could generate badly needed dollars while improving the lives of those displaced by the tragedy.
John Weis, RCCL's vice-president of private destinations, said his company has just finished a $50 million development at the northern coastal resort of Labadee that includes a straw market, a 2,600-foot-long zipline over land and water, an "Aqua Park" and an 800-foot-long pier that extends to offer 1,200 feet of mooring space.
"We're very proud of the straw market we've created," said Weis, noting it has 80 booths with 240 vendors offering local handicrafts, artwork and hair-braiding. RCCLís entire Labadee complex covers 200 acres and employs 230 Haitians full-time. The area is for the exclusive use of RCCL cruise-ship guests, though "during non-call days, we open it to the public," he said.
Weis was interviewed at the downtown office of Prodev, a nonprofit humanitarian agency run by Daniel Kedar, an Israeli businessman whose Haitian wife, Maryse Penette, was once the country's minister of tourism and now represents RCCL in Haiti.
Penette said that last year, Haiti received only 650,000 tourists — a pittance compared to nearly 4 million who visited the neighboring Dominican Republic. And most of those 650,000 were cruise-ship passengers calling on Labadee, she said.
"When a country decides to be serious that tourism will be an important engine of economic growth, everybody needs to play a part," said Penette, who was in Port-au-Prince when the earthquake stuck Jan. 12, narrowly escaping death. "Our tourism potential is like a woman; it gets old. I'm telling you, people are so tired of hearing about potential."
She and Weis have been working closely on RCCL's plan to invest heavily in the area around Labadee. Although the resort was nowhere near the epicenter of the magnitude-7.0 quake, many survivors fled to the northern city of Cap-Haitien, straining the area's already overloaded infrastructure.
To date, RCCL has contributed around $2 million worth of relief aid, said Weis.
"Initially, our plan was to bring everything to Port-au-Prince, but it became apparent that the needs in this area were pretty high as well," he explained. "We got a lot of criticism for bringing in cruise ships to Haiti after the earthquake. I guess the gut reaction is to feel guilty. But our management took a courageous stand."
Weis said RCCL's two largest cruise ships — Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas — carry 100 to 200 pallets of relief supplies per visit, which is equivalent to 5-10 truckloads of water, food, dialysis machines, X-ray machines, tents, "anything we can get our hands on."
"We don't have a lot of storage space on the ship, but our crews are doing an outstanding job figuring out where to put everything," he said, adding that the medical supplies are being offloaded and trucked to two hospitals where quake victims were taken: the 250-bed Justinian University Hospital in Cap-Haitien, and the Hópital Sacré Coeur, a 73-bed facility in Milot run by the nonprofit CRUDEM Foundation.
In addition to supplying the hospitals, RCCL is partnering with the Clinton Foundation's Haiti Relief Fund to build two schools each capable of accommodating 120 to 140 students.
Long-term, though, Royal Caribbean says the best way to improve the lives of Haitians is to bring more tourists to the country. And that means capitalizing on Haiti's most important historical landmark: La Citadelle.
Built in the early 1800s by Henri Christophe, the leader of Haiti's slave revolt, this mountaintop fortress is the largest in the Americas and is located 17 miles south of Cap-Haitien and five miles from the town of Milot. Yet the massive castle — declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982 — is so off the beaten track that it's visited by only a few hundred people per month.
Weis aims to boost that to 300-400 cruise-ship guests per week, by making it more accessible through construction of a dirt road, with financing from the Inter-American Development Bank.
If all goes according to plan, Royal Caribbean guests will board small vessels, or tenders, capable of carrying up to 100 passengers each, from the docks at Labadee to the Baie de l'Acul — a 20-minute boat ride. From there, it'll be a 45-minute drive through 29 kilometers of countryside to the Sans Souci palace ruins, located at the base of the Citadelle.
The six-hour shore excursion will cost $150 per person, said Weis, though he expects only a small fraction of the guests who dock at Labadee to take advantage of it.
"We need to figure out a safe way to get visitors to and from the Citadelle," he said. "USAID fully supports this project, and CHF International will make the necessary road improvements. This is a long-term solution that can be done very quickly, in less than four months."
With more urgent priorities facing Haiti right now, four months seems unlikely. But it's quite possible that adventurous cruise-ship passengers could be visiting the Citadelle by year's end — bringing cash into a country that suffered up to $14 billion in earthquake damages, according to an IDB estimate.
As Richard Fain, RCCL's chairman and CEO, put it in a recent blog posting: "We will work with the Haitian people to be part of the solution. We will do our part of the rebuilding. Our operation in Labadee is one of the few economic engines they have left. We must continue to stoke that engine and we are looking to find new ways to expand upon it."