Haiti, Dominican Republic juggle ethics of tourism after quake

The Dominican Republic is urging tourists not to cancel holiday bookings despite a devastating earthquake in neighbouring Haiti, where people are debating whether it is appropriate for cruise ships to keep making scheduled stops at the country's private beach resorts.

Cruise ship docked 100 km from Haitian capital devastated by earthquake

The Dominican Republic is urging tourists not to cancel holiday bookings despite a devastating earthquake in neighbouring Haiti, where people are debating whether it is appropriate for cruise ships to keep making scheduled stops at the country's private beach resorts.

The Dominican Republic's tourism industry is urging vacationers not to cancel bookings to the country, saying tourist dollars are needed now more than ever since a 7.0-magnitude earthquake on Jan. 12 devastated Haiti.

In Haiti itself, there are questions as to whether it was appropriate for a cruise ship to make a scheduled stop three days after the quake at a private beach resort 100 km from the flattened capital, Port-au-Prince, which took the brunt of the disaster.

The two countries occupy one island, with the Dominican Republic making up a larger eastern portion that remained relatively untouched by the strong earthquake and Haiti the remaining western part.

"There was no damage to the natural environment [in Dominican Republic]," said Vanessa Welter, the public relations officer for the Dominican Republic's Ministry of Tourism

"All the infrastructure, hotels — everything is fine. Some people said they felt a little dizzy, but they didn't' realize until after they heard on the news that there was an earthquake that that might have been why they were dizzy."

Dominican holiday hotspot Punta Cana is separated from Port-au-Prince by more than 400 kilometres of mountainous and dense jungle terrain, but tourism dollars spent there and elsewhere in the country could actually help Haiti, Welter said.

"Because in a small way, that does strengthen the country. And actually, because [the Dominican] is a strong country, they're able to help their neighbours," she said.

The Dominican Republic is a top travel destination for Canadians, who in 2008, booked about 500,000 vacations booked to the country, according to Statistics Canada.

Kelowna, B.C., resident Lydia Bohna was among those weighing whether or not to cancel a two-week vacation to the Dominican Republic she'd booked earlier this month.

"The concern is, 'Is it safe to go?'" said Bohna. "A friend of mine is cancelling. She doesn't want to go. She said, 'I got a bad feeling about it. I'm cancelling.' So, she's going to lose all her money."

Cruise ships to continue docking at Haitian ports

Tourism-related questions began popping up in Haiti itself soon after the disaster hit when Florida-based cruise ship line Royal Caribbean International decided it would not cancel its scheduled stops at a private resort in Labadee, less than 100 km from Port-au-Prince.

Royal Caribbean leases five beaches from Haiti's government. Last Friday, three days after the earthquake struck, the Independence of the Seas pulled into a private dock in Labadee. Not all passengers felt it was appropriate to enjoy the stop with such misery nearby, according to comments posted on a message board hosted by and quoted in the British newspaper The Guardian.

"It was hard enough to sit and eat a picnic lunch at Labadee before the earthquake knowing how many Haitians were starving. I can't imagine having to choke down a burger there now," wrote one contributor under the name Bakincakes.

Other commenters on the message board disagreed.

"I do not think it will be the same level of a party there, but more of a visit with a determination and purpose," wrote temple1. "By tipping workers, purchasing from vendors and other activities, cruisers will be helping the locals in Cap Haïtien and the relief efforts in Port-au-Prince."

Two other Royal Caribbean cruise ships are scheduled to pull in to Labadee this week, although cruise officials pointed out the ships will be carrying food supplies that will be distributed to the needy.

Richard Fain, the CEO of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. defended the decision to continue to stop at Labadee.

"The effect of the earthquake on Haiti has been catastrophic, leaving the country in need of not only immediate support but assistance in their long-term recovery," said Fain in a news release Friday.

"Royal Caribbean wants to do its part to help out not only the general response but also our hundreds of Haitian employees and their families through this disaster," he said.

The decision has the support of Haiti's United Nations envoy.

"Given the terrible economic and social challenges we now face in Haiti, we welcome the continuation of the positive economic benefits that the cruise ship calls to Labadee contribute to our country," said Leslie Voltaire, Haiti's special envoy to the UN.

Royal Caribbean Cruises has also announced it will provide at least $1 million in humanitarian relief to Haiti.