Aaron Keene via Creative Commons
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The dystopian Caribbean islands created just for tourists

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

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.

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). 

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. 

Anchal Vohra
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A Syrian family froze to death fleeing the war. So why hasn’t the world noticed?

The family were only a couple of hours’ drive from the glitz and comfort of Beirut. Please note: this story contains a graphic image.

Aged just one-year-old, Yasser al-Abed was travelling towards safety with his family of 14. But the journey turned into a death trap. In total, 16 people, including six from the Abed family, froze to death in the mountains. They were just a couple of hours’ drive away from the glitz and comfort of Beirut.

The frozen bodies of the Abed family and their fellow refugees are a stark reminder that the conflict in Syria is not over. Not for those like the Abeds, whose neighbourhoods were destroyed during the assault on Islamic State, nor for the misery of those still living in the middle of a warzone.  

Half a dozen children are screaming in the packed, tiny room in the north Lebanese city of Tripoli, where I meet the surviving members of the Abed family. The adults sit on the carpet with fallen faces. The mood is bitter. 

Amal, an 18-year old mother, is hiding in a corner of the room, her face buried in her knees despite her three-year-old daughter nudging her for attention. Amal is Yasser’s mother. Her son was the youngest of the six to die.

Eventually, she pulls out her phone and runs her fingers through the picture of her boy. “This is all I am left with. I miss him very much,” she says. Her eyes well with tears.

The Abed family came from the Syrian province of Deir Ezzor. The province had changed hands during the long conflict, falling to Islamic State in 2015 before being taken again by the Assad regime. Caught between airstrikes and extremists in the ground, up to 95,000 civilians were displaced by the fighting, according to an October UN estimate

In the Abed family’s case, their home was shelled in December 2017, leaving the family no choice but to seek safety somewhere else. For a month, they say, they stayed in a hotel in Damascus known as a collection point for Syrians hoping to leave the war-torn country. One day, they were approached by a smuggler who offered to escort them to Lebanon illegally.

Home to at least a million Syrian refugees, Lebanon started restricting access for more such cases in 2015. That has not deterred Syrians from trying to seek a safe haven, often endangering their lives a second time. Since December last year, 300,000 have fled Syria in renewed fighting on several fronts. The Abed family is one of them.

Desperate, they took the smuggler at his word. They decided to march in the middle of the night, braving the snow, the cold, and the violent winds.

After clearing immigration on the Syrian border, the smuggler sat them in a café and advised them to follow blinking lights emanating from a point on the mountain in the border area. He collected a sum of $1,500 for the group, told them it would be a short walk and left.

On the night of the journey, Yasser was in the arms of his aunt, Amal’s sister Abir. Seven months pregnant, Abir found it difficult to carry the infant. “The smugglers said it would be a 30 minute walk, but we walked all night,” she says.

The family followed the blinking lights as instructed and met three men. They discovered they weren’t the only ones to be transported but that a large gathering of 60-70 people would make the same journey. The three guides, possibly local shepherds, divided them into groups and they began their quest.

At some point in the night, the man leading Abir’s group disappeared. She was with her mother and some other family members, but deep in a winter storm, she became separated from the rest. Tired and lost in the dark, after hours of hard climbing, Abir succumbed to sleep. “When I woke up, everyone around me was dead,” she says.

Abir found her nephew Yasser lying still on the ice. His eyes were open, his face pale and his body tilted to the right. His sweater was labelled “Ferrari”. He had not survived the night.

His photograph, the snow encasing his lifeless face, reminded many of that of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old who drowned in the Mediterranean and whose picture after he washed up on a beach near Turkey shocked the world in September 2015. 

The image of Yasser and other Syrians, his face blurred. Source: Lebanese Civil Defense

Both Yasser and Alan were small children whose families were fleeing the war in Syria. Yet the response has been drastically different. Alan’s picture changed the nature of the debate about refugees in much of the Western world; Yasser’s has hardly received any attention.

When Alan died, it was the height of the refugee crisis, and hundreds of thousands of Syrians were knocking on the European door. By the time Yasser met his end this January, Islamic State was on the run, Assad was thought to be winning and the news cycle had moved on.

The reality is that the Syrian war isn’t ending, but flaring up anew, and Syrians are continuing to die.

Since December, several hospitals and clinics have been targeted by the Syrian regime in Idlib in northern Syria. Scores have been killed. They include civilians who were bussed out of Aleppo in December 2016 after rebels who had held the east of Syria’s second city surrendered. They died in Idlib instead.

In the rebel-held Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta, 400 have been killed since late December, according to the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights and a 100 of these are children. Thousands continue to live under a regime-imposed siege.

Both Idlib and Ghouta are in theory opposition-controlled “de-escalation zones” under terms of a ceasefire agreement negotiated between Turkey, which supports the rebels, and regime-backers Russia and Iran. The Assad regime is supposed to have given its assent, but has shown the rules little regard.

In August last year, at the Four Seasons Hotel in Damascus, Bashar al-Assad’s media boss and close adviser, Bouthaina Shaaban, told me that there is no doubt the Syrian government will attempt to regain all of Syria. “We have got Aleppo and now we are in Deir Ezzor, next we will go to Idlib and get back every part of Syria under the control of terrorists,” she said.

The Syrian regime has gone about eliminating all shades of opposition and regaining the country in a systematic manner. First, it cracked down on the original, democratically-minded protesters. With the moderates crushed, it could create a narrative of “Assad versus the extremists”. Then, it used the fight between regional and world powers against IS to its advantage. Having won time with the four de-escalation zones, it focused on reasserting dominance in major financial and resource-rich regions. Now strengthened, it is targeting the opposition in these zones, including the civilians stuck among the rubble.

Assad’s blood-stained track record shows he is unlikely to stop while he is winning, which means more death, more destitution, more debris and displaced Syrians becoming refugees.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s hostility towards the Kurds and America’s support for them has put two Nato allies on opposite sides. And in the south west of Syria, two regional rivals, Iran and Israel, are engaged in a stand off after an Iranian drone was intercepted flying over Israeli territory. The contested border region of the Golan Heights, up until now dorman, could potentially become a newly active battlezone. 

In short, the theatre of war in Syria has expanded, not contracted. And both living in the country and leaving it will continue to be a death trap for ordinary families like the Abeds. 

The family members had suffered from the social injustices imposed by the regime for all thier lives. When Islamic State took over, their problems magnified. Amal and Abir couldn’t leave the house, and Shihab, Yasser’s grandfather, lost his job as a TV repair mechanic because IS banned watching it. But after losing their home and belongings in the war and half of their family in the subsequent attempt to flee, they wonder if they were better off living under IS. 

Losing Yasser makes Amal want to return to Syria. She came to Lebanon looking for a new home and safety but the sorrow of her son’s death has swallowed her. She craves the surroundings she knows.

Shihab blames himself for asking the family to escape. He wonders had they not, may be his grandson would still be alive.

As he received condolences from relatives, he said: “Life under IS was difficult but there was no war. Our house was only bombed when the regime started clearing them up.”