Jan. 19, 2010 -- As rescuers frantically try to save the lives of those trapped beneath the rubble in Haiti's capital city, Port-au-Prince, 3,000 tourists are stepping off a Royal Caribbean cruise ship -- just 90 miles away -- to enjoy the cruise line's private beach resort today.
These tourists are some of the first visitors, other than rescuers, to come to the earthquake-ravaged nation. Their presence is leading some to question Royal Caribbean's decision to visit Haiti.
Royal Caribbean has had a relationship with Haiti for almost 30 years, including the last 15 at its own private resort, Labadee, located on a peninsula on the island's northern shore. It is far from the disaster zone, but every ship that stops there -- Tuesday's is the third since the earthquake -- is also bringing in relief supplies.
Labadee is far enough from the earthquake's epicenter to have escaped damage. But for some, that might not be enough to overcome the idea of vacationing in a country devastated by disaster.
"It was hard enough to sit and eat a picnic lunch, before the earthquake, at Labadee knowing how many Haitians were starving," wrote one commenter, Bakincakes, on the cruise blog Cruise Critic. "I can't imagine having to choke down a burger there now knowing how many have died and how many are dying of thirst and who will probably die of their injuries."
But another poster, JSnow789, said they were proud to be heading there Tuesday "and will happily spend what I can to help the locals working."
'Important For Us to Continue'
For its part, Royal Caribbean said it never thought about canceling its cruises.
"Once the Haitian government said it's okay to come back, please come back, we started. We never canceled a single port call," said spokeswoman Cynthia Martinez. "We think it is important for us to continue to go to Haiti, not only to take supplies but to impact the local economy."
While there, tourists can go kayaking, snorkeling, parasailing, and enjoy a zip line or the "Aqua Park" for kids.
"This exclusive destination offers pristine beaches, breathtaking scenery and spectacular water activities," the company says on its Web site. "It's impossible to choose just one thing that's special about Labadee. The sandy beach and coral reefs provide a perfect place to relax and have fun."
Cruise Ships Visit Haiti Despite Earthquake
Martinez said 230 people are employed directly at the resort by Royal Caribbean and there are another 300 vendors that aren't employed by the cruise line but sell souvenirs and services -- such as braiding hair -- directly to Royal Caribbean passengers at a straw market on the site.
The whole resort is protected by armed guards at the main gate, but Martinez such measures are part of the regular security procedures for the site and there has not been an increase in security since the earthquake.
"We've very sensitive to our guests. We understand that some of them might not feel comfortable going to Haiti. They can stay onboard if they choose to," she added. "But it was very important for us to go back as soon as possible."
On Thursday, the night before the first ship, Independence of the Seas, arrived, the cruise director told passengers gathered for a show that they would be stopping in Haiti and that all the proceeds from their stop would be going for relief efforts.
"He got a standing ovation in the theater," Martinez said.
She said that the profits from any shore excursion, jet ski ride, the zip line or any alcohol sold there will go for relief, "a couple of thousands of dollars."
Royal Caribbean has already pledged at least $1 million in humanitarian relief to Haiti by partnering with charitable organizations including Food for the Poor, Pan American Development Foundation and the cruise line's foundation in Haiti, the Solano Foundation.
Each ship is also bringing in 40 to 80 pallets of supplies including, water, powered milk, rice, dried beans and canned goods which are then distributed by the charities.
Stewart Chiron, president of CruiseGuy.com, a travel marketing group specializing in the cruise industry, said that Royal Caribbean made the right decision.
"It was very important for them to begin visiting the island again and begin pouring money back into the local economy," Chiron said. "If they had pulled out of there and gone to another port or another day at sea … I think they would have been chastised 100 times greater. Without a question of a doubt, this was by far the best thing that Royal Caribbean could have done."
Chiron said Royal Caribbean's resort is far removed from the earthquake zone and tourists won't even realize where they are.
"It's a very, very secluded part of the island," he said.
Cruise Ships Visit Haiti Despite Earthquake
Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor of Cruise Critic, also noted that most of the people where the ships are docking have not been victims of the earthquake.
"Let's not victimize them further by staying away," Brown said. "Maybe, for passengers whose ships call at Labadee, the island experience won't be a tropical play-day but a way to support the Haitians who work there, and whose souvenirs and trinkets are for sale there. It's an opportunity to put down the pina colada and make an effort to talk with the Haitians, connect, hear their stories, learn something about their culture."
She added that during a taxi ride Saturday in Miami, her driver was, of all things, from Labadee.
"I asked him: how do Haitians feel about a cruise ship coming back so soon," she said.
His response: "it's still crucial for people there to keep working, to have some sense of normalcy, and that the country needs any supplies it can get."