Above: Haiti Tourism Minister Stephanie Villedrouin (CJ Photo)
By Alexander Britell
In June 2012, Caribbean Journal spoke to Haiti Tourism Minister Stephanie Villedrouin about her plans to grow Haiti’s largely undeveloped tourism sector into something far bigger. At the time, few had considered tourism in Haiti as a potentially significant sector for the country, and even fewer were talking about it. Now, almost nine months later, Haiti’s tourism strategy is the subject of much conversation at home and in the international community, highlighted by a recent agreement that will see Canadian tour operator Transat bring vacationers to Haiti. To learn more, Caribbean Journal spoke with Villedrouin to discuss her priorities for 2013, the impact of recent travel warnings on the country and the value of the agreement with Transat.
How much has Haiti’s tourism sector changed in the last year?
The year 2012 was a very important year for the Ministry of Tourism, because it was the year of preparing the product. At the same time, we were working on the infrastructure of several different natural sites. Because we’re not trying to promote an all-inclusive package — we’re promoting our culture, our natural sites, our gastronomy, our dancing, and, of course, our people. So for that we wanted to prepare the product. To do that, we started with training. Last year, in January, we reopened the hotel school that had collapsed after the earthquake. So we opened the hotel school, and I did a very important strategic partnership with ITHQ in Quebec, where we worked over the last six months to organize a better curriculum.
How important is training?
Now, we’re talking about a multi-billion-dollar industry, and one of the main things, if not the most important thing, is not the villas, not the natural sites, it’s the service. It’s the people. Because it’s a very personalized industry. So one of my main concerns was not only a new curriculum, but a lot of training of the teachers, and so we upgraded our teachers. We trained the teachers of the school, and made some strategic contacts with, for example, Amadeus, one of the largest booking and reservation technology companies, and they gave us 20 computers, installed the software and started giving classes in March. So for us, the training was one of the biggest objectives for 2012. Now, we’re opening the first tourism and hotel school of the South. The South is one of our strategic regions, and we will be opening this school [this month]. We are also doing a lot of vocational training. Because we do believe that Haiti has the potential to receive tourists. So we implemented a very aggressive programme in order to train the employers that are already working in this sector. Because we need to improve the level of service in Haiti.
What was your plan to grow the sector at first?
Building a hotel takes 24 months. So if I waited for all the new hotels to be built, we would have been waiting for five years. So we implemented a programme to reinforce the existing hotels, with training, working with the national bank to have some loans for these hotels so they could restore and upgrade the rooms. What we created were excursions around these hotels. So we implemented a lot of products like natural sites, with more than 20 sites that we’ll restore this year in 2013. Having said that, we also did training at the natural sites. In 2012, we brought in a lot of agencies, like tour operators, press trips, in order to present the country in a different way. We wanted to show them that we were working on the product. And I can say that one of our biggest trips was a group of tourists from Guadeloupe and Martinique, French-speaking departments that we have a cultural and historical link with. So we invited them and there are even more groups will invite in 2013. But what I can say was our biggest achievement was the deal with Air Transat.
How did the Transat agreement come about, and what does that mean for Haiti’s tourism sector?
It was a year that I was in contact with them. I said, ‘listen, Haiti is an absolutely beautiful country.’ In the 1970s and 80s, Haiti used to see a lot of Canadians, but now much of Canada doesn’t see Haiti as a tourism destination. So I went back to Air Transat three times. We had just inaugurated our new airport terminal [in Port-au-Prince.] So I gave them the opportunity to come to Haiti and visit two or three places. And, because they’re tour operators, they can say, ‘ok, this is good, this needs so and so to be good.’ So we went to MUPANAH, we went to the Observatory, the local market, and they were thrilled by it. And we went to Jacmel, which is a town where we’re working on a $40 million project. So we worked on branding it as a culture destination. So we took them to different excursions, to visit small islands, to visit the mountains, and they were completely convinced that Haiti had a product to offer. Then they went back. That was last November. Two months after, they launched a new package in Haiti. And it was the first time in 23 years that Haiti had existed as a tourism destination in a tour operator’s brochure. And we just received our first group of Canadians [last month]. The group came with the mindset of being on vacation. About half the group was from the Haitian Diaspora, with the rest being Canadians, mostly friends of Haitians living abroad. They spent a whole week, they did seven excursions, including two days in the Capital and three in Cote des Arcadins.
How many tourists will that agreement bring? Do you plan on expanding that?
The contract was signed for one group per month, and that was my first request. Now we have to create the demand. And the demand has to come from the first group coming, the first group being happy and satisfied about their experience and of course from promoting and doing aggressive marketing to help us, a year from now, have a second full-flight tour. The package we signed with Transat brings 35 seats. It’s not much, but it’s a start. What’s more important is the agreement we signed with them, because they are not only going to promote the package, but help us to ameliorate the product we already have – because they know exactly what it is the customer needs, so it’s more natural and will be more objective to work with them in creating all these types of product. And I have to say the diversity of experience Haiti can offer is huge.
Are you working on securing similar packages with other travel companies?
Definitely. We’re going to sign with Delta in March — we had to postpone it because of Carnival, but the agreement is there. Delta is ready to promote Haiti on their vacation package from New York and Atlanta. Since they have this partnership with the SkyTeam alliance with Air France, Air France as well has booked some packages to go to Haiti from Miami. So I’m confident that this new partnership with the big airlines will help us increase the number of tourists. Because we’re starting small, with three [flights] per month, but I’m confident that by the end of this year that will increase.
What’s the strategy for these kinds of travel packages?
We’re working to get the second generation [Haitian Diaspora], Haitians living abroad, to get them to return home and visit their country of origin. That’s one of our strong markets that we’re definitely trying to attract. The second part is to come up with a concept where you don’t have an all-inclusive, but an “all-inclusive original,” and we did it with Transat. The only issue [the Transat tourists] had in Port-au-Prince was because of the traffic, so we’re trying to see different excursions and how to overcome the traffic. So now, with the local operators, we’re trying to work hard to build a better set of transport facilities for the next group. But besides that, it was a very good experience for all of them.
How does the private sector play a role in what you’re doing?
We’re doing huge steps, because we want to do it huge, but slowly, having the right partners. That’s very important, because we’ll never be able to do it alone. I have to say that we have a strong private sector, a strong tourism private sector. Because they invested over the last 20 years knowing that Haiti was not treated properly, but they still believed in the sector and did invest. And that group was very happy to receive, for the first time, a group of vacationers. Not a group of NGOs, not for political reasons, but coming for vacation. And I really applaud them, because they did an amazing job. So we have a partnership with a private sector that’s willing to cooperate. As a Minister, I can only do so much. I went to Canada, I said “this is what my country is.” But at the end of the day, when tourists come, I’m not there to receive them all the time. So the private sector needs to do it on its own. The government aspect was ensuring security, to have no problem with insecurity, with transport. I really think they pulled it off. And the most important partner was Transat, because if they did not believe in Haiti, if they had not believed in it, the package would not be happening today.
Are there any other packages you’re considering working on?
We’re starting small — there are a lot of issues to address, but we’re starting small. We already have an agreement with the Dominican Republic, and Air Transat is willing to do it. The idea is that you would go to Puerto Plata, and then come into Haiti and spend two days in Cap-Haitien and then come back to the Dominican Republic. Air Transat is waiting on that proposal right now. So it’s a combined package that we’re trying to promote the island [of Hispaniola], so it’s a very interesting marketing tool — because you have two countries, two gastronomies, languages and people.
The US and Canada issued travel warnings at the end of December for Haiti. What kind of impact did that have, and how do you get beyond them?
I think it’s hard for each country to have their own sources of information. Each country has different issues. I spoke to the Canadian Ambassador, who said that he had the same travel advisory for other countries in the Caribbean that are very tourism-dedicated. I think [Haiti’s] government responded well. I was there at the press conference — the Minister of Finance was there, the Minister of Health was there, of course, the Prime Minister was there. And we said, we’re here to show with numbers, with data. The travel advisories were about cholera, of kidnapping. So the Prime Minister came with information, with the number of arrivals, that all the hotels were full in December, that we received one of the biggest artists in the world, Sean Paul, from Jamaica, who came to do an amazing concert in Haiti. So we put some doubt into how these people that have their priority to issue travel advisories were getting their information. And all the information came from the Secretary of State for Public Security, which showed that Haiti is not even listed in the 10 countries that have the highest insecurity in the Caribbean. So what insecurity were they talking about? The Dominican Republic’s [murder rate] is three, four times more, and it’s the biggest destination in the Caribbean. But look at the Transat agreement. If Air Transat decided to come with us, it’s because they felt secure, and that’s my message. The tourists will come because they trust Transat, and trust what Transat is offering. And that’s how we’re going about our job. We have an objective, we know what we want, and we’re in partnership with the right people.
In December, the Royal Oasis opened — what other hotel development is on the way in Haiti?
We opened the Occidental [Oasis], and the Best Western will open by March. By the end of 2013, we will have 600 new rooms in Port-au-Prince. Last December, we had a [ground-breaking] ceremony with Marriott. So it’s very interesting to see all this infrastructure coming, because we definitely need more rooms. You have to pick where to start, and we did that a year ago. Now, I’m finalizing my master plan. We have one project in the South, and one in the north. The project in the South combines 26 kilometres of white sand, with the development of an island called Ile a Vache. So it’s a very combined product that we will try, along with Jacmel, where we’ve invested $40 million, including a convention centre, an amphitheatre, a hotel and an airport. We’ll also have a new runway strip for smaller planes to arrive in Jacmel. In Les Cayes, we have a new airport that will open completely the South, not only for investors, but for agriculture, for industry. In the north, the new strip is being finalized, and we’re building a new terminal. So by the end of 2013, we’ll have two brand new airports. For Ile a Vache, we will also have a 1,500-metre airport for Learjets and private jets. So that’s how we’re moving. There’s a lot of interest for big hotels to come to Haiti – Melia, Barcelo, because they own in the Dominican Republic. So we’re finalizing our plans.