(5 p.m. EST) -- It's been a week since the first Royal Caribbean ship returned to Labadee, Haiti, after an earthquake devastated the island nation's capital of Port-au-Prince -- and what a week it has been. The cruise line, though pledging money and supplies to the relief effort, has taken heat for its decision, with journalists, bloggers and cruise travelers -- including Cruise Critic readers -- voicing strong opinions both in favor of and against continuing calls.
However, the majority of Cruise Critic readers support the cruise line, which is currently donating all proceeds made during Labadee calls to the relief effort in addition to bringing ashore relief supplies. According to recent polls on cruisecritic.com and cruisecritic.co.uk, 65 percent of U.S. and U.K. readers (almost 4,700 voted) praised the aid and financial support ships and passengers are bringing to the port.
An even larger number of passengers have been getting off the ship in Labadee to do their part to help the local economy. Royal Caribbean spokeswoman Cynthia Martinez tells us that on the first day back, with Independence of the Seas, 85 percent of guests went ashore; Navigator disembarked 90 percent. Martinez did not have comparison numbers, but says crewmembers working ashore report beach crowds to be at normal levels.
"With every single ship," she says, "we've asked the captain and the hotel director, 'What is guest sentiment?' Once they stand in front of the guests -- whether before a show or at the captain's reception -- and explain the reasons we're going back and all of the things we're doing to help Haiti, every single time they've received a standing ovation."
"I Just Got Back"
We've received messages from many of these passengers, and though the personal experiences vary, there's a common conclusion -- once they got there, they were glad they went.
"Our impressions were that the islanders were somewhat subdued, but only slightly ... In general, due to the ship's encouragement, I would say that the cruisers spent significantly more then than in my other trips ... I really have trouble understanding a position that criticizes RCI. Had they avoided the port, I'm sure that then they would have been criticized for callous indifference. It seems obvious to me that if we discontinue visits to Labadee, even for a short period of time, that the residents there that rely on tourism would suffer greatly. Does it help the relief effort by creating additional poverty in Labadee?" --Steve, via e-mail
"We were on the cruise last week that stopped at Haiti on Friday. I believe it was the right decision to support the country financially but personally could not bring myself to enjoy anything on Labedee. I kept looking at the mountains and thinking of the suffering such a short distance away. It was a somewhat subdued visit, with sad and concerned expressions on many of the cruisers faces and no one seemed to really get into the beach party atmosphere that is normally present. We spent money to support the local economy, as did many people and I think this is critical to the employees and artisans on the island. Still, it was a difficult stop for many of us." --Linda, via e-mail
"I was on the Navigator of the Seas on Monday when it visited Labadee, Haiti. At first I was a little leery about going to the country knowing that a few miles away there were people trapped under buildings. What made me feel better about the situation is that Royal Caribbean has donated so much money and efforts to the people in Haiti. They were also delivering supplies on our ship, which was vital to the health of the Haitians. I had a great time knowing that while other people couldn't get into Haiti to help, we were able to deliver aid and donate money...." --Vanessa, via e-mail
"Before leaving for Miami last week, I had mixed emotions about stopping at Labadee. I knew that the people there needed our help, but at the same time, I felt it was insensitive to be going there not even one week after the disaster. However, I was pleased to read in the Miami Herald before boarding on Saturday a story about Royal's promise to deliver over a million dollars in aid. Then, while standing on the deck of the ship waiting to board, I looked over the side and saw pallets of food and water marked 'Haiti Relief' being loaded onto the ship, and I actually felt proud to be going there.
"As far as the actual day in Haiti, it was a pleasant and wonderful experience as always. We spoke to a young man in the straw market, probably around 18, and told him how sorry we were for his country. We asked if he lost any relatives, and he said he did, along with almost everyone in Haiti. When asked if he was upset we were there, he said not being there would be worse than coming. He has family in Port-au-Prince that need his money and support and that by not coming, he would not be able to help him. That seemed to be the sentiment amongst all the workers there.
"At the same time, I do have to say it was a bit surreal knowing that the center of the world's focus was only 100 miles away. Upon returning to our stateroom, I turned on FOX news to see that the first air drops were occurring at that very moment. That was definitely a moment of reflection. Soon after, as the ship was preparing to leave, I looked over the side of my balcony, and saw all the aid supplies being put out on the pier and taken away by trucks. At that moment, I felt proud knowing that I had a direct hand in helping the Haitian people." --Becky, via e-mail
Martinez tells us that, so far, more than 120 pallets of goods -- primarily water, the island nation's number one need, but also nonperishable foodstuffs -- have been brought ashore. Four more ships will bring supplies over the next week and a half, including not only more food and water but also medical supplies.
Royal Caribbean will continue to donate all money made during Labadee calls through at least February 1, at which point the cruise line will re-evaluate the situation. The first three days of calls netted $110,000 -- all passed on to the relief effort.
Overall, the line has pledged at least $1 million in aid, but the final tally will far exceed that and is already projected to be closer to $2 million.
Your Questions, Answered
Many of you have written in with questions about the relief effort, the safety ashore and the reasoning behind the decision -- and we had a few of our own as well. Here are the top four:
"Are there safety concerns now on Labadee?"
Martinez says that there is security at Labadee just as there would be in any port. There is an access gate and a check point on the road to Labadee -- all of which existed long before the earthquake. "We've had no need to increase security on the site," Martinez says. "Just like at a hotel or resort, our security is armed. That's part of our regular efforts."
"Why haven't cruise lines chartered ships to relief efforts, and can't the pier be lent out?"
As far as cruise ships are concerned, Martinez says that Royal Caribbean and its sister brands will entertain offers or requests for charters, but that they have not yet been approached. Nor have they been approached by other cruise lines to use the pier. (The pier is not viable for cargo ships based on an assessment by the Coast Guard.)
"What is being done for the crew?"
Labadee employs 230 Haitians; another 300 vendors sell their wares in the straw market. Overall, Royal Caribbean's business impacts more than 500 people from local villages. Then there's the onboard crew, of which 300 are Haitians. "We've heard a lot of sad stories from crewmembers," Martinez says. "Most can't get in touch but when they do it's very rarely good news."
Royal Caribbean has augmented its already existing Crew Welfare Fund with additional cash flow so that every Haitian that applies will be able to receive a grant (up to $2,500 is offered to help crew, for example, rebuild homes or bury loved ones). The cruise line also paid to help crew get home, has extended its compassion leave from the regular timeframe of two weeks to "indefinitely" (based on how long they need), and installed Skype onboard shipboard computers as an alternate means of getting in touch while phone lines are scarce.
"Did Royal Caribbean expect such backlash from the media?"
Martinez says, "We always knew there was that possibility, but from the very, very beginning we knew it was the right thing to do. At first we were hesitant because we wanted to make sure the Haitian government wanted us to come back ... The easiest thing would have been to take the ships to Nassau. As a business decision, we wouldn't have made more or less [money]. But we did the right thing. We never wavered.
"We have almost a 30-year relationship with Haiti: You don't abandon your friends when they need you the most."
--by Melissa Paloti, Managing Editor
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First Reports In from Cruise Passengers Back from Haiti
Cruise Exec Defends Royal Caribbean Haiti Decision
Haiti Debate Heats Up as Cruise Ships Arrive With Aid
Members Speak Out: Should Cruise Ships Have Returned to Haiti?
Haiti Relief: Cruise Industry Response Update
First Cruise Ship Arrives in Labadee After Haiti Quake
Cruise Industry Plans Haiti Relief Effort
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Cruisers Report from Haiti as Relief Effort Continues
January 22, 2010