A New Dawn for Haiti Tourism?

By: Caribbean Journal Staff - December 28, 2011

Above: Cayes-Jacmel (Photo: HTO)

By Maura R. O’Connor
CJ Contributor

When Dominican business entrepreneur Frank Ranieri wanted to get involved in tourism in the 1970s, he crossed the border into Haiti to see how it was done. “[Haiti’s tourism] was bigger than in the Dominican Republic,” Ranieri says.

Today, the tourism empire he built in Punta Cana is one of the most popular destination spots in the Dominican Republic. Out of 4 million annual tourists in the country, the resorts there receive 2.2 million. The Punta Cana International Airport (the world’s first privately owned) brings in $350 million in taxes for the Dominican government each year.

Meanwhile, Haiti’s tourism industry is essentially nonexistent today, a fading memory after decades of political instability, economic stagnation and natural disasters. It’s hard to remember that until the early 1980s, Haiti was a Caribbean destination spot for North Americans, perhaps most famously Bill and Hilary Clinton, who honeymooned on the island in 1975. After Toussaint L’ouverture International Airport was built in 1965, over 300,000 tourists were arriving by plane or sea to stay at the country’s azure beaches and buy Haitian crafts. Since then, military coups, economic sanctions and UN peacekeeping troops have kept tourists away.

Even so, before the earthquake hit in January 2010 an estimated 100,000 intrepid visitors were visiting the country.  But the earthquake ravaged infrastructure in Port au Prince, including hotels like the famous Montana. As a result, there are only 800 high-end rooms functioning in the country (although a slew of new rooms is in development), and the cholera outbreak has added yet another reason to the long list of reasons people have stayed away from Haiti.

Which is perhaps why Ranieri returned to the country last month to participate in the Inter-American Development Bank’s “Invest in Haiti Forum.” Alongside Duncan Dee, COO of Air Canada, Kathleen Matthews, executive vice president of Marriott International, and Denis O’Brien, chairman of Digicel, Ranieri offered a radically positive message about the future of tourism in the Caribbean and Haiti specifically.

“We need to get into the Caribbean 50 million tourists, the same as Spain or France each year,” he told a packed room. “Haiti has to play a role in it… All that you have got in the last decades is bad news. You have to start showing people that you can come to Haiti. You’re not going to get cholera if you come to Haiti.”

Ranieri is part of a vanguard of entrepreneurs who believe Haiti can change its image in the eyes of the world, and become a destination spot for tourists. In recent years, dozens of small companies have begun “voluntourism,” “ecotourism,” and “adventure tourism” travel packages to Haiti.

It’s now possible to travel to Haiti for surfing, mountain biking, spelunking, rock climbing, hand gliding, yoga retreats, and scuba diving. In many cases, these startups see their mission as a meeting of philanthropy and commerce. The Village Experience, which brings tourists to Haiti to do community service as well as visit beaches and shop, says its mission is for travelers to have an experience “that will change their life and the lives of those around them.”

The American fashion designer Donna Karan is another entrepreneur who has her sights on Haiti. Karan, speaking at the forum, described her love affair with the country that began when she visited in 2010.

“This is probably the best year of my life,” she said. She believes Haiti could become a “Little Bali,” of boutique hotels and fine dining in tropical paradise.

“The perfect model for Haiti is Bali. [In Bali] the spirit exists, the people are extraordinary, the creativity is every place that you walk, the tourism is fantastic,” she said. It’s probably one of my favourite places.”

Whereas Indonesia takes North Americans 25 hours to get to, Haiti is just a few hours south. “The opportunity here is endless,” she said.

But can the Haiti overcome its international reputation? Can Haiti become synonymous with creativity and spirit instead of violence and poverty?

“Haiti, yes, it has problems, yes it has poverty, but we’re not trying to hide that,” Haitian Tourism Minister Stefanie Balmier-Villedrouin recently told the Montreal Gazette. “You have to put it in balance – all countries have problems, and so do we – in certain areas. But we also have regions with beautiful beaches and great cultural heritage and lovely people.”

A recent study funded by Canada’s International Development Research Centre seems to back up Villedrouin’s assertions with hard data. Using data spanning from 2005 to 2011, sociologists Athena Kolbe and Robert Muggah surveyed thousands of households including tent camps after the earthquake. They found that homicides in Port au Prince dropped from 19 per 100,00 in 2004, to three per 100,000 in 2009.

The findings are remarkable. Nearby Jamaica’s homicide rate has been an average of 60 in 100,000 from 2004 to 2009, and it currently ranks as the third most violent country in the world. Nonetheless, Jamaica remains a popular tourist destination for North Americans and there is currently no travel warning to the country issued by the US State Department. Haiti has had a travel warning for at least eight years.

“It’s a question of perception,” said Valerie Louis, executive director of the private sector organization L’Association Touristique d’Haïti. “Jamaica has a lot of insecurity and ghettos, but you don’t see it…What they did was create all-inclusive projects. They block off a zone and keep tourists in. Tourists are not going into Kingston.”

In recent months, members of the L’Asssocation Touristique d’Haiti have lobbied the US State Department to alter its travel warning to the country, according to Louis. The most recent version, issued in August 2011, warns Americans of critical crime levels, kidnapping, murders, cholera, lack of infrastructure, “seasonal severe inclement weather,” and limited police protection.

“We’re not staying those things will happen to you, but we’re trying to explain to people that if something would befall you, you have to be aware,” said Jon Piechowski, spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in Haiti.

Piechowski said he is unaware of any decision to alter the travel warning based on the recently- released report on crime rates in the country.

“We meet with business people and there are definitely a lot of people in Haitian business and government and especially tourism industry who I think have been very vocal about what they feel the travel literature should say,” he said. “But our commitment to informing American citizens remains. ”

Marie-Gabrielle Isidore is the CEO and Co-Founder of Brand Haiti, a national student organization that lobbies to promote Haitian tourism and foreign investment. Isidore said she believes the warnings need to change.

“So much of it is fear,” Isidore said. “We’re told, ‘Don’t go to Haiti, it’s just impoverished and its misery. But when you come here, you don’t want to leave. No danger has ever come upon me. There’s amazing beaches and resorts and if we visit those, its jobs for people.”

Brand Haiti is currently developing an “Alternative Spring Break” campaign in an effort to bring American college students to the country instead of the traditional destinations of Mexico or the Bahamas. “Young people can be at the forefront of changing perception of Haiti,” she said.

Brand Haiti is not the only force working to change the image of Haiti abroad.

Paul Bannister spent six years reinventing tourism in South Africa as an advertising consultant, and served as the acting CEO of the International Marketing Council of South Africa ahead of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Bannister is now working with the Government of Haiti to create a similar rebranding campaign for the country.

Bannister said that transforming a country’s image is a matter of finding unique propositions, figuring out what sets it apart from other destinations. Is it the next Bali, or the Dominican Republic extended?

“I get a sense we’re going to be a little something different,” he said. “We’re going to build on it and be something the world hasn’t seen before, which is something to do with the Caribbean but a little bit more real.”

There are signs that business entrepreneurs are betting their money on the possibility that Haiti is the next Punta Cana success story.

Irish billionaire Dennis O’Brien recently signed a deal with Marriott Hotels to build a $45 million, 173 room hotel in Port au Prince, scheduled to open in 2014. A Best Western hotel is currently under construction in the capital. The lavish Hotel Karibe in Petionville is currently constructing 100 more rooms. Royal Caribbean Cruises says it is moving forward with an almost $55 million investment in Labadie, the paradisiacal beach on the country’s northern coast. The Oasis hotel is on its way toward being rebuilt, as is the country’s hotel school.

The new Haitian government under President Michel Martelly is making tourism one of its four pillars of development alongside agriculture, manufacturing and education. Currently, the Ministry of Tourism is developing strategies like attracting members of the Haitian Diaspora back to the country for vacations.

“They have the love, the only thing missing is a way for them to get here,” said Louis. “We’re trying to get our people to come back, even for a few days.”

Nonetheless, there is undoubtedly a long road ahead before Haiti becomes Little Bali, or at least a place where anyone but adventurous travelers would consider taking a family vacation or honeymoon.

Public transportation exists in the form of “tap taps,” brightly painted pickup trucks, and motorcycle taxis, but is perilous. The cost of food and amenities is extremely high compared to the Dominican Republic. Renting a car or private driver is expensive and often requires a large deposit. Due to a chronic lack of public services and resources, hotels spend large sums of money on producing their own energy and clean water, costs that inflate prices for guests.

“The biggest obstacle is expense,” said Helen Springut, 30, an American who recently went to Haiti for a week long vacation. “It’s cheap to fly there but you need a driver. In Africa, it’s $30 a day, in Haiti it’s $200 a day.”

But Springut, an experienced traveler who has gone to 55 countries around the world, said she would go again. “It was beautiful. I had a really great time… People go to Haiti and have very, very strong reactions.”

In his closing remarks at the “Invest in Haiti” conference, Bannister offered one cautionary tale to Haiti. In Kenya, Italians have built lavish resorts with Italian masons and Italian builders and Italian materials.

“All the Kenyans were able to do was clean up the rubbish bins afterwards. The money never actually touched the ground in the country,” said Bannister. Haiti may need to create “little bubbles” initially–a version of Jamaica’s all-inclusive resort models.

But ultimately, Haiti’s tourism, he said, should be a place where people get pulled “out of their bubbles.”

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