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18 October 2017updated 09 Sep 2021 4:57pm

The dystopian Caribbean islands created just for tourists

The perfect beaches of Labadee are surrounded by a high fence. 

By Miranda Hall

Holland America’s “Half Moon Cay” is proud of its “unspoiled” and “uncluttered” setting. And by clutter they seem to mean the Caribbean locals. This is one of the growing number of fantasy islands that are privately owned by American or European cruise lines and, as is made clear in all the brochures, strictly off-limits to all but their passengers and employees. On Disney’s “Castaway Cay”, “islanders” are hired through casting calls from as far as Australia. Cranes dredge up 50,000 truckloads of sand from the bay and grind it into smaller pieces to produce a whiter, more instagrammable beach. Meanwhile the tiny number of (non-white) locals employed as sanitation workers are concealed behind plastic screens with “No Guests” signs. “Contact”, once explained a Royal Caribbean diving instructor to a researcher, “is disturbing to our passengers.”

On Royal Caribbean’s own island paradise, “Labadee”, disturbing contact is harder to manage, because it’s not actually an island. In 1986, Royal Caribbean struck a deal with the US-backed dictator “Baby Doc” Duvalier and bought a strip of land on the coast. They named it after 17th century plantation baron and slave owner, Marquis de La’Badie, and marketed it as a private island. Tens of thousands of foreign tourists have visited the peninsula without ever knowing they are in Haiti. The key to Labadee’s own “uncluttered setting” is therefore a ten-foot iron wall patrolled by guards with machine guns.

This doesn’t always work. The travel journalist Jason Cochran describes how he was enjoying the Colombus Cove buffet when he spotted a beggar gesturing to a paper plate through the wire fence behind the Portaloos. He and some other tourists gallantly tried to throw a banana over the fence but a sentry intervened and asked him not to feed the locals. A woman from Minnesota was also deeply disturbed when stall-owners in the market “hounded her like starving animals”.

Some passengers are also bored of the clutter-free setting. “Labadee boring. Hate it. Too many palm trees…” writes CruiseGirl6 in a TripAdvisor review. With this in mind, Royal Caribbean now offer an authentic local experience in the form of a “historical walking tour“, which has received rave reviews from cruising culture vultures on TripAdvisor.

Haiti was the first black republic and second nation in the Western hemisphere to win its independence from a European power under the slave rebellion led by Touissant L’Ouverture between 1771 and 1803. Royal Caribbean’s tour, however, focuses on an Englishwoman called Nellie. This “tenacious entrepreneur of old” arrived with the buccaneers and set up a tavern to serve rum to visiting ships.

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Haiti’s history in the past hundred years has also been marked by political oppression. Under the rule of “Papa Doc” and “Baby Doc” Duvalier between 1957 and 1986, propped up by Western governments,  between 30,000 and 60,000 Haitans were murdered by state forces. This story didn’t make the cut for the tour either. Instead, guides tell of the dragon who oppressed and tormented Nellie for years with his fiery breath and is now immortalised in the form of a rollercoaster.

Nellie’s spirit of tenacious entrepreneurship and tax evasion also lives on in as the new cashless “SeaPass” system. This ensures that, with the exception of the locally-staffed crafts market, every penny spent in ports of call goes back into the hands of the cruise companies. It goes without saying that the development of these private destinations has been alarming to Caribbean countries, as local ports are cut out of the cruise itinerary in the process. With the SeaPass, the already-limited contribution to local economies is further eroded.

There have been some efforts to fight back. Last year, cruises were turned away from Labadee when local protestors in small rowing boats blocked their way, clanging pans and holding up signs reading “USA away!“. (Royal Caribbean says the protests were against the Haiti government, which condemned them). 

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According to reports, passengers on board instinctively started taking photos of the boats, perhaps assuming was one of the staged “cultural performances” popular in other Caribbean destinations. If true, this assumption is unsurprising. On the ship and the fantasy island, everything is part of a simulation designed to offer instant gratification to the tourist gaze. Royal Caribbean’s “Quantum of the Seas”, marketed at the growing Chinese market, is designed so that passengers can have the tropical experience without ever even going outside. The FlowRider® simulates surfing, the Solarium offers “refreshing water mist and warm sunshine” while the Two70 room® overlays glass walls onto the sea with “impromptu digital scenes.”

Human beings are the only part of the cruise experience that can act out of turn. People get sick, break things and complain about inhuman working conditions or racist abuse. But just as Disney’s developers bleached their own sand to replace the rocky terrain of Castaway Cay, cruises have now found an alternative to human labour. Quantum’s Bionic Bar has perfectly synchronised robotic arms instead of bar staff. 

Just as private islands were an extension of the inner world of the cruise ship, so the mechanisation of this world is likely to spread on land. As public spaces are increasingly commercialised and closed off around the world, we may see the cruise-ification of far more than a few fantasy islands.

Royal Caribbean has not responded to a request for comment.