Bienvenue en Haïti
Dubbed the ‘Pearl of the Antilles’ in the 1950s, Haiti was one or the Caribbean’s main tourist destinations in the 1950s, and then again in the 1970s – particularly for Americans.
Philippe Girard writes in his book Haiti – The Tumultuous History that many tourists were attracted by the country’s developing sex industry.
But plenty of American celebrities also holidayed on Haiti, including Arthur Ashe, Muhammad Ali and Bill and Hillary Clinton who famously honeymooned in Haiti in 1975.
Haiti’s tourist industry dipped in the 1960s and then again in the 1980s.
In the 1960s, it was the activities of François Duvalier’s tontons macoutes – immortalized by Graham Greene in his 1966 book The Comedians – that hit Haiti’s image hard.
Girard, for example, points out that visitors landing at Port-au-Prince’s airport in 1964 were met by the disturbing sight of the body of Yvan Laraque, a member of a group of young rebels that had tried to overthrow Duvalier. It had been left there as a warning to would-be rebels.
In the 1980s, Haiti’s tourist industry suffered when American health organisations linked the country directly to the emergence of AIDS.
Cruise ships stopped docking and charter flights no longer landed as the tourist industry – then the second largest source of foreign income – went intro freefall with hotels closing and many Haitians employed in tourism and auxiliary industries losing their jobs.
Now under the slogan ‘Experience Haiti’, the Haitian government is seeking to re-launch the country as a tourist destination.
It believes that tourism can act as a driver for the economy.
Money generated from tourism can, according to Haiti’s tourist minister Stephanie Villedrouin, ‘help us to eradicate poverty and take [people out of] the tents’ – a reference, of course, to the 2010 earthquake that devastated large parts of the country and led to displaced people being temporarily housed in tents.
Haiti can take inspiration from its neighbour the Dominican Republic which attracted, according to Travel Weekly, 4.7 million tourists in 2013.
Travel Weekly also notes that per capita income in the Dominican Republic is about $5,650, whereas in Haiti it is $810.
Villedrouin is seeking to project a different image of the country to the one routinely portrayed in western media reports. In particular, Haiti’s tourist ministry is keen to change western perceptions of the country as a disaster zone.
Instead, the ministry is keen to promote the country’s long stretches of unspoiled natural coastline, its rich and highly distinctive cultural and architectural heritage, its mythology, and its history as the site of the only successful slave revolt in the Americas.
New logos, which highlight what the country has to offer and present Haiti as a modern tourist destination, have been developed. For instance, the Tourist Ministry’s logo, launched in 2012, features the word Haiti emerging from a hibiscus flower, the unofficial national flower.
The logo of the Association Touristique Haïti, meanwhile, features the iconic Citadelle Laferrière, a World Heritage Site, constructed under the auspices of Henri Christophe and a central plank in plans to develop Haiti’s tourist industry.
These tourist logos are important because they represent a choice as to the most effective way of positioning Haiti in a Caribbean tourist market that is both crowded and competitive.
The choice of Christophe’s Citadelle is particularly significant. It recognises that Haiti’s distinctiveness, its competitive advantage over other countries in the Caribbean, lies not in azure blue waters, golden beaches and palm trees, but in its history and culture.
This will be something new, for Haiti’s tourist industry has, in the last few years, revolved around the cruise ships that arrive in the tourist enclave of Labadee. These cruise ships account for the bulk of the $200 million that the country earns from tourism each year.
Established in 1986, Labadee is a fenced-off private resort that has been leased to Royal Caribbean by the government. Royal Caribbean, which is one of Haiti’s largest foreign investors, pays the Haitian government $10 for every visitor to the enclave.
An item on National Public Radio characterised Labadee as a resort where ‘the developed and emerging worlds slam up against each other’. Certainly, the disparity between the luxury within the compound and the poverty outside it is stark.
While Labadee has provided some opportunities for local craftsmen and artists (visitors can visit a Haitian market to buy paintings, crafts, coffee, wood carvings, paintings, dolls, basketry, clothing, beads, jewellery and, of course, Barbancourt rum), such opportunities are limited.
The cruise liners tend to use on-board staff for all activities rather than to employ local people. They argue that they need to maintain the same levels of service and quality on land as on board.
While Labadee is now marketed as being on Haiti rather than being on the island of Hispaniola as was previously the case, it really provides a generic and quintessential Caribbean beach experience rather than enabling visitors to ‘Experience Haiti’.
It is clear, however, that cruise ships remain central to the government’s plans. Thegovernment is looking to develop a second cruise ship enclave on the island of Tortuga, just off the northwest cost of Haiti.
In fact, the government has already signed a memorandum of understanding with Carnival Corp to develop a $70 million port facility on the island.
Tourist developments are not just restricted to enhancing port facilities for large cruise liners.
To increase its share of the Caribbean’s large touristindustry, Haiti is also investing in airports and hotels.
Occidental Hotels and Resorts, NH Hotels, Marriott and Best Western are among the organisations who have opened premises in Haiti in the last couple of years. Hugo Chavez International Airport at Cap-Haïtien has been significantly enhanced, with the help of $30 million worth of investment from Petrocaribe. American Airlines is due to start flying to Le Cap in October.
Work to be done
Despite such developments, much work remains to be done if Haiti is to expand its tourist industry and if visitors’ experience of Haiti is to be a positive one.
Haiti is still not particularly well ‘set up’ for tourism. There are not enough beds and not enough hotels. It is also the case that the country’s infrastructure is not particularly robust and requires significant investment. It is by no means easy to travel around the country.
And then, of course, there are issues of political stability, the risk of crime, and the need to change perceptions of the country. As with any tourist destination, Haiti needs to ensure that visitors to the country feel safe and secure.
As recently as 2009, the US State Department advised against all nonessential travel to Haiti. While that is no longer the case, the guidance issued by the State Department advises visitors to ‘exercise caution’.
It is clear that, while Haiti presents opportunities for investment in tourism, it also presents challenges. As Ernst and Young’s Mark Lunt told the Hotel News Now website, Haitian tourism is ‘underserved’ and is ‘ripe for development’, but ‘from a risk perspective it [has] been at the far end of the spectrum’. That clearly needs to change.
At the same time, the government also needs to be wary of the pitfalls of tourism, which include beach erosion, marine pollution, and the fact that much of the industry will be dependent on and will be in the hands of foreign businesses.
In other words, if the country wants to tap into and deploy its historical heritage as a tourist resource, it needs to ensure that that heritage is protected.