Guilt makes awkward baggage for the holidaymaker. From self-reproach about the impact on the planet of a flight to the sunshine, to the twinge of remorse about supporting human rights abuses by visiting China, many of us would prefer to leave our consciences at home. But in a part of the world that has fallen victim to a humanitarian disaster, should the very notion of tourism be abhorrent? One in five respondents to an online poll conducted yesterday by CruiseCritic appears to think so. They described the return to Haiti's Labadee Beach of cruise ships as "in poor taste".
Now, from an ethical perspective you can criticise cruise lines for reducing tourism to a caricature. A vessel the size of a housing estate drifts around the Caribbean, her kitchens serving up absurd quantities of food in a region where many go hungry. She destabilises communities by delivering thousands of visitors at the start of the day then scooping them up before dark, before embarking on the next futile arc in the never-ending circle of indulgence.
You could also question the benefits to passengers of making scant and superficial visits to islands that deserve weeks of exploration, and disparage the way that Royal Caribbean markets "Labadee®", its "private paradise" on the north coast of the island of "Hispaniola" – presumably a more marketable concept than the nation of Haiti, which has leased the stretch of shore to the cruise line. Yet even as the dead are being dragged from their wrecked homes, and the living are scavenging for food and water, you cannot fault the benefits to the people of that benighted country of hosting cruise ships. In the short term, the vessels are bringing in food, and Royal Caribbean has promised to donate its revenue from the visit to the rescue efforts. And in the long term, only tourism can save Haiti.
Tourism is a remarkable force in rebuilding nations torn apart by nature or war. It does not divert scarce resources: the beautiful beach at Labadee has little value other than as an earthly approximation to heaven. The industry provides plenty of jobs, and requires only modest capital; many residents on the neighbouring island of Cuba make modest incomes by letting out rooms to curious travellers. And despite the "take only photographs, leave only footprints" mantra (beloved of people who describe themselves as travellers, not tourists), visitors tend to leave something more tangible: foreign currency, a commodity essential for Haiti's reconstruction when the emergency funds dry up.
When the tsunami swept across the Indian Ocean on Boxing Day, 2004, thousands of people – both locals and tourists – were killed on the island of Phuket. But the following morning, one of the isle's dive businesses that had been spared by the arbitrary fortune of geography started taking out clients as normal. Some – including the distraught relatives of foreign victims – may have seen this as repugnant profiteering, but Thai survivors regarded it as the beginnings of the renewal of an enchanted island.
Everyone (apart from those whose knowledge of geography is gleaned only from cruise brochures) knows now where Haiti is. It will not be long before curious visitors stray across from the Dominican Republic, or hop over from Cuba. Some will be disaster tourists, the sort who could hardly wait to see Sarajevo once the shooting stopped. But most will tread softly, befriend local people and spend freely. Indeed, the best way to counteract a troublesome travel conscience is to set a course for Haiti. And any ship will do.
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