Labadee greets cruise ship passengers with unique panache: a cocktail, an empty beach, high walls topped with razor wire, guards with shotguns, and the suggestion that whatever the atlas says, this is not really Haiti.
The rest of the tourist industry fled long ago but this resort, sited on a magnificent bay, successfully markets vacation luxury in the western hemisphere’s most wretched, turbulent country.
Royal Caribbean International, which owns a fleet of giant cruise ships, has leased the peninsula as a private resort and made it an idyll, untroubled by squalor, hunger or violence.
“Our friends were worried for us, they said ‘Haiti, no way’, but this has been the best stop on the trip,” beamed Chris Green, 38, a businessman from Michigan who had just disembarked with his partner, Liz Clark, 36.
Some were not even aware they were in Haiti since brochures tend to site Labadee on the northern coast of Hispaniola, the name for the island Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic.
Glossing over the country’s name and hiding its reality from those who disembark is a melancholy measure of how far Haiti has fallen since its heyday as a holiday magnet for the likes of Mick Jagger, Jackie Onassis and Graham Greene.
Tourism was an economic pillar of the brutal but stable Duvalier dictatorship, with hundreds of thousands drawn annually by the tropical mix of pristine beaches, voodoo rituals, Creole cuisine and the Citadelle Laferriere, an awesome, historic mountaintop fortress which inspired a Harry Belafonte song.
The dynasty’s fall in 1986 paved the way for democracy but also anarchy, which frightened away tourists and left resorts empty and decaying. While the Bahamas, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica built billion-dollar tourist industries, Haiti languished as a regional basket case best known for boat-people, gang warfare, kidnappings and Somalia-levels of poverty.
“This seafront used to be full of foreigners and restaurants but nobody comes now because of the insecurity,” lamented Nicola Sivieux, 41, a fisherman in the port of Cap-Haitian.
Earlier this year there was hope of a revival. President Réne Préval restored political stability and a 9,000-strong UN peacekeeping force imposed some order in the slums. The Organisation of American States, a pan-regional body, promised to fund training for hotel and restaurant workers and the government was due to pitch donors a $270m (£138.5m) plan to rebuild the industry.
Then, in April, food riots erupted in the capital, Port-au-Prince, images of mayhem returned to TV screens and the prime minister and tourism minister resigned. “Whatever happens in Port-au-Prince has an immediate impact on the image of Haiti as a vacation destination,” the ex-minister, Patrick Delatour, told the Associated Press.
Until Haiti becomes more stable and safe, talk of mass tourism is a fantasy, said Camille Charlmers, a development consultant and former government adviser. “We have a terrible reputation. What we could do, however, is promote a niche of eco and heritage tourism.”
Meantime the industry had just one asset, Labadee. The resort’s tactic of marketing Haiti as Hispaniola was not ideal but at least it brought tourists, said Charlmers. “Even if not all of them realise they are in Haiti.”
Royal Caribbean’s brochures recently started referring to Haiti as well as Hispaniola. The biggest player in a shrivelled industry, the company ferries hundreds of thousands of visitors ashore – albeit for only a few hours – and pays the government S$6 (£3) per head. In addition to employing 300 locals the company says it allows 200 traders to sell artisan wares inside the resort.
In the same waters where slave ships once sailed come vessels such as the Liberty of the Seas, a 17-storey, 160,000-tonne behemoth which stretches more than 300 metres (1,000ft) and boasts shopping arcades, cinemas, a climbing wall and an ice rink.
Passengers are lured ashore with offers of paragliding, jet-skiing, snorkelling and zip-lining, where they are harnessed to a cable and hurtled from a hilltop down to the ocean. The ride lasts 45 seconds and costs $80 (£41), more than Haiti’s average monthly salary.
From his stall outside the resort’s walls, Daniel Vital, 52, a local, watched the tourists zipping overhead. He lacked permission to enter Labadee and no tourist had dared leave the razor wire to visit the little market. “I’ve sold nothing today,” he sighed. “I’m used to that.”
Four teenage boys, who also lacked permits to enter, hiked around the perimeter hoping to encounter a stray tourist and sell a traditional wooden face mask for $10 (£5). “There are no jobs, this is the only thing we can do,” said Gabriel Degavian, 19, the eldest.
This form of garrison tourism gets a mixed response from website travel reviews. “I felt like I was on a movie set. The water is crystal blue and the vegetation is so green and lush. Just beautiful!” said a writer from Indiana. “But I noticed the fence and quickly realized the tourist beach was nothing like the area where the locals live. It made me feel like a snotty, selfish tourist. I was enjoying complimentary drinks and food while the people who called the place home were struggling to survive.”
Another reviewer, from Pennsylvania, was more concerned about being ripped off by people selling their wares. “If we paid what they were asking, everything would have cost $85. Instead we paid $16! One guy fell on the ground and said ‘You’re killing me, boss lady.’ My wife said ‘I don’t want to kill you, I’m just not paying that price!’ It was great!”