A brighter day: Haiti's tourism fightback is starting to yield results

Four years on from the earthquake that devastated the country, Haiti is well on its way to recovery and courting tourism with a host of initiatives. Debbie Ward reports

Iron market in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti

If you sell Latin America, Haiti wants to speak to you. The Caribbean island believes the more adventurous traveller, familiar with the likes of Brazil and Argentina, will help it re-embrace tourism as it emerges from political instability and natural disaster.

The Ministry of Tourism has already joined Lata in a bid to attract UK visitors. Its new London-based consultant to Europe, Jean-Marc Flambert, who grew up in Haiti, explained: “We’re looking at Latin America operators and travellers because number one, we have air connectivity - there are a lot of flights via Miami, New York, Paris, Panama and Cuba but, for British visitors, no direct flights, and anyone going to Latin America knows they’ve got a stopover.

“Secondly, there’s a misconception that crime is a problem in Latin America and that also affects Haiti. Most importantly, there’s the product offering; like Latin America, Haiti’s a touring destination with a culture far from Britain’s own and English is not the first language.”

Like-minded tourers who have visited Cuba are another target for Haiti, and UK visitors can even twin the island, or Latin America, through Santiago de Cuba or Panama City respectively. Flambert plans to approach British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and others regarding a possible triangular route from the UK via Cuba or Dominican Republic - with which Haiti shares the island of Hispaniola.

African influences

During my visit, World Cup fever had gripped the nation and every other car was flying a Brazilian flag. But despite its Latin football allegiances, I found, culturally, Haiti more African than anywhere in the Caribbean. There are market stalls on every corner and everything from fruit to a table is carried on heads. Meanwhile, the African religion Vodou is intriguingly intertwined with Catholicism.

Chief among Haiti’s touring sites is the lofty Citadelle, near beach base Cap Haitian, built after the country pulled off the world’s only successful slave revolt. There’s also the arty heritage town of Jacmal, which has a carnival in February, and vibrant capital Port-au-Prince, home to a small but impressive history museum, the huge Iron Market and a jumping nightlife, including legendary Vodou rock band RAM.

Beaches aren’t the primary tourism focus but there are plans to develop Cote des Fer near Jacmel, and the far west island Ile-a-Vache, over the next 10-15 years, courting the likes of Tui to build hotels.

“Visiting Haiti is a secret you can’t resist but share… and travelling around the country seems safer than ever”

Marta Marinelli, product executive, Exodus

The only similar enclave at present is Labadee, which Royal Caribbean has leased until 2050. A new road will make shore excursions from Labadee to the Citadelle possible and there are plans to develop cruising further, with Port-au-Prince, Cap Haitian and, for smaller ships, Jacmel, among potential ports of call.

Tourism minister Stephanie Villedrouin believes the money-spinning mass market can co-exist with core touring product: “It’s about master-planning areas you can receive these tourists while protecting others, so for instance there will never be big hotels at Jacmel, it isn’t suited.”

Haitian crafts on sale in Jacmel

Crafts: the arty town of Jacmel is a great place to pick up a handmade souvenir

So far, Haiti is covered from the UK by Interchange Worldwide and trade-friendly Undiscovered Destinations. However, the ministry is keen to start targeting bigger names. G Adventures has confirmed plans to sell Haiti, while Exodus joined the first combined fam and press trip last month and another trade trip will run in September.

Exodus product executive Marta Marinelli was impressed: “Visiting Haiti is a secret you can’t resist but share… and travelling around the country seems safer than ever.”

Moving on

To most potential tourists, Haiti is still synonymous with the 2010 earthquake in which an estimated 250,000 people died. But to believe Haiti was laid waste is a mistake. The devastation was largely restricted to the capital, and though the National Palace has been removed, the Catholic cathedral is a shell and rows of houses have sobering gaps, the biggest shock for me was to find most streets completely intact.

“I was amazed to find the hotels buzzing with weekending locals and vacationing ex-pats”

But is it appropriate to holiday in a poor country, so recently visited by tragedy? Well, Haitians do. I was amazed to find that hotels I expected to be dusting down rooms last used in Haiti’s 1970s heyday were already buzzing with weekending locals and vacationing ex-pats.

“Haiti has a big population, obviously there’s poverty but there’s also a big upper class and a growing middle class,” Flambert explains. “There are also ex-pats; they’re going to restaurants and bars, and friends and family are going too.”

It was also pleasing to find virtually every hotel Haitian-owned, meaning tourist money can truly benefit the country. Some hoteliers are using new preferential interest rates from the government to fund improvements. With wry smiles, they point out that demanding ex-pats are pushing up standards. Some of the diaspora are even returning, armed with hospitality experience gained in the US.

One such Haitian is Villa Therese owner Alain Villard. He was in his car when the 2010 earthquake struck: “it felt like I was in a boat on the sea,” he recalls. His Port-au-Prince boutique hotel, built in the 1940s by his wife’s grandfather, was destroyed in 35 seconds and nine of his staff and guests died. In just three years he’s rebuilt it to the same vintage design and he’s optimistic about tourism: “I think people are curious about Haiti, and they’re starting to let their guard down.”

Haiti beach

Doing business: far from being deserted, Haiti’s beach hotels are buzzing with locals and expats

Western brands

International brands Occidental and Best Western Premier have already given their vote of confidence to Port-au-Prince and a Marriott is on its way. British ex-pat-turned-Haiti-tour-guide Jacqui Labrom believes these global companies will help Haiti have a “voice” to counter misconceptions. New tourist police and tourist taxis should further reassure.

“You will not see a devastated capital city. People want to move forward. Everyone is on the go, they’re looking for a better day”

Stephanie Villedrouin, Haiti tourism minister

Tourism now accounts for 5% of the country’s GDP but the minister won’t name a future target, saying growth will come organically with infrastructure improvements. Some 1,200 new hotel rooms have come on stream in the last year and I found most roads already of good standard.

Villedrouin stresses visitors will not feel intrusive: “You will not see a devastated capital city. People are on the street selling their goods. They want to move forward. Everyone is on the go, they’re looking for a better day.”

Despite the odd UN truck and chunk of US Aid sheeting to remind me of the many remaining foreign NGOs, I certainly felt the country’s back to work buzz. Towards the end of my visit I was caught in one of the capital’s traffic jams behind a brightly coloured Tap Tap bus painted with the message “Never Give Up”. It seemed to encapsulate the nation’s mood.

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