Why Haiti needs tourists
There's been a lot of tut-tutting from the politically correct brigade about holidaymakers who have the gall to go to Haiti in the aftermath of its cataclysmic earthquake. How distasteful, they sniff, to want to bask on a beach sipping Pina Coladas when, just an hour down the road, its capital city lies in ruin and families are still searching for their dead.
Perhaps they are right. Perhaps it is morally questionable and crass that fat-cat westerners who crave a slice of Caribbean bliss should continue to go there when it is engulfed in such unthinkable human suffering.
But surely that's for the people of Haiti to decide.
Is it fair that local fishermen and fruit sellers who make a living from visiting cruise ships should have their livelihoods whipped away from them just because the idea ruffles our ethical sensitivities in the West?
What right have we to deprive this long-suffering nation from getting back on its feet and keeping a badly needed industry afloat at a time of such catastrophe for the island?
Of course it is unpalatable to imagine tourists frolicking in the sun when people are pulling bodies from the rubble just a short drive away, but why should proximity play a part in our moral judgements? The desire to climb Kilimanjaro for an Irish charity could be seen as equally unsavoury when children are dying from hunger and war in neighbouring African countries.
Recently, my colleague Simon Calder pointed out that when the tsunami swept across the Indian Ocean on St Stephen's Day, 2004, thousands of people -- locals and tourists -- were killed on the Thai island of Phuket. The following day, those who survived picked up the pieces and got straight back to work. Dive companies took clients out, surfers took to their boards and sunbathers took to the beaches. There were those, including the relatives of foreign victims, who found this abhorrent, but for many Thai survivors it was the dawn of a new beginning for their ravaged paradise island and a sign that life was going to be normal again.
Today, there's a similar mood at the beach resort of Labadee, less than 100km from Port-au-Prince. It sustained no damage in the earthquake and cruise companies such as Royal Caribbean see no problem in keeping the resort on its itinerary.
As well as annual fees, Haiti reaps a fixed cost per passenger from the visit, who in turn pump thousands of dollars into the local economy every day on souvenirs, hair braiding, and voodoo shows. The cruise firm is also helping the relief effort, donating $1m in aid and delivering emergency supplies.
During the Troubles, many outsiders saw no difference between Belfast or Ballybunion and ruled Ireland out as a safe holiday destination.
Those of us who lived in the South knew differently and our economy suffered terribly as a result. It wasn't until peace came that we saw tourism boom and become our biggest industry.
If your conscience is niggling you about Haiti and you don't have any skills to offer the emergency effort, put it on your must-see list for 2010, splash out on its tropical beaches and spend freely.
That's the richest gift you can give to the poorest people of the Western hemisphere.