Brian Macquarrie writes about tourism aiding Haiti in Boston’s Globe:
John Gibson, a 40-year-old Oklahoman, leans back in a beach chair and watches his two children frolic in the crystalline water that laps the fine sand at his feet.
“Do I look like a towel?” he asks with a laugh as the children, 10 and 8, run toward him, dripping, shaking, and squealing with delight. In a moment, after Gibson has failed to fend off the spray, the children sprint back to the ocean on a balmy, cloudless, sun-streaked day.
Behind him, bartenders stock liquor at an outdoor cabana. On the far side of a large pool, lunch is served on a patio. Just off the beach, a fishing boat with a russet-colored sail makes its leisurely way along the coast.
If a visitor had parachuted into this place, a resort called Club Indigo, the amenities would seem indistinguishable from hundreds of upscale retreats that dot the Caribbean Sea. But this is desperately poor Haiti, and the leisure comforts of Club Indigo are only 40 miles north of the impoverished and wildly chaotic capital of Port-au-Prince.
Gibson did not visit Club Indigo for the night life. Instead, he is using its beaches for a short-term breather during a religious mission to Haiti. Nearby, Lucille Hill of Atlanta, a nurse who had come to Haiti with a US medical team, curls her hands around a rum punch.
Besides these guests, the club’s expansive, manicured grounds are nearly deserted.
Two years after an earthquake is believed to have killed more than 100,000 people in Haiti, its people continue to struggle to rebuild the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.
Tourism will help, they hope, but even the most boosterish officials know that dream is in need of more than good intentions. The earthquake publicized Haiti’s plight around the world through indelible images of suffering; cholera remains a serious, often fatal problem; and an overwhelmed government fails to provide adequate sanitation, public safety, medical care, and transportation.
Simply traveling from Port-au-Prince to Club Indigo, less than an hour’s ride in the United States, can take more than three tortuous, rib-rattling hours in which battered cars and trucks fight for room on a crumbling road with pedestrians, trash, and the occasional goat.
When Joseph Zaiden, the club’s general manager, said he routinely makes the trip in 45 minutes, I rolled my eyes and wondered, how, by helicopter?
Traveling anywhere in this country is an adventure, and almost always not in the positive sense of that word.
“Over the last 25 years, every time we mentioned tourism, people would say, ‘Tourists? Haiti?’ ” said Richard Buteau, vice president of the Haiti Tourism Association.
Now, because of the devastation caused by the earthquake, the notion seems even more preposterous for a country where US visitors routinely prepare for the trip by protecting themselves against typhoid, hepatitis, and malaria.
“Wishing for tourism and making it possible are two different things,” said Vick Ulysse, 34, a video production manager who also works as a driver, or fixer, for visiting foreigners.
Still, Buteau sees potential for an industry that, since the 1970s, has declined precipitously amid a high rate of HIV and AIDS, the migration of Haitian boat people to Florida, military coups, and other political instability. In its heyday in the late ’60s to early ’70s, the country was attracting about 300,000 tourists a year, and even about 100,000 before the 2010 quake.
“We have one advantage because we are starting from scratch, and we can learn from the mistakes,” said Buteau, who is general manager of the Karibe Hotel, one of the best in the country. “Changing the image of Haiti is something we have started working on.”
That makeover will be daunting, but the country’s leaders are pitching tourism as one of the four pillars of its redevelopment, along with agriculture, manufacturing, and education. The government recently launched a tourism campaign called Vivez l’Experience, or Live the Experience, whose logo features a red hibiscus, the national flower.
Haiti currently has only about 800 quality hotel rooms, according to a report in the Caribbean Journal, but has set an ambitious goal of 3,000 new rooms by 2015. Five hotels and 763 rooms are moving toward development, including a $45 million, 173-room Marriott hotel in Port-au-Prince, the Journal reported.
To pitch the country’s potential, Haitian tourism officials have begun attending travel conventions in Miami and elsewhere to tout their tropical beaches; the French colonial architecture in Jacmel, a city that influenced the look of New Orleans; and the Citadel, a fort near Cap-Haitien that is the largest in the Americas and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Elsewhere, Royal Caribbean cruise line has been taking passengers since 1986 to Labadie, a private beach resort in the north. Haiti also has connections to the pirate captain Henry Morgan, who in the mid-1660s established a base at Ile a Vache, an island off the southern coast; and to Christopher Columbus, who visited Haiti on his first voyage to the Americas in 1492.
Well-known and well-meaning Americans on humanitarian visits have given Haiti, which shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic, some adventurous appeal. They include Bill and Hillary Clinton, who honeymooned in Haiti; celebrities such as Sean Penn, Oprah Winfrey, and Matt Damon; and thousands of medical volunteers who have brought their time and skills.
As a result, Buteau said, the country has experienced a boomlet in a certain kind of overseas visitor.
“We have a huge increase in humanitarian tourists. They are tourists with a purpose,” Buteau said. “Now, we are not targeting the average American tourists. We are targeting the more adventurous tourists, the more sophisticated tourists.”
For the foreseeable future, Haiti’s logistics will be a big deterrent for casual visitors who simply want to relax. Navigating the streets of the capital is a slow-moving nightmare of few traffic rules and stop-and-go congestion that will tax nearly everyone’s patience. Locally hired drivers who know the shortcuts and the detours are a must.
Port-au-Prince has daily air connections from the United States, particularly Miami, which puts this country much closer to Americans than its Third World difficulties make it seem.
Once in the country and out of the capital, the effect is otherworldly. Poverty is stark and widespread, and remnants of the earthquake are still apparent in damaged buildings and piles of rubble. But the farmland is often beautiful, the vegetation lush, the mountains imposing, and the people friendly.
The staff at good hotels such as the Karibe speak English, but most regular Haitians speak only Creole or French. A Haitian driver who can translate is indispensable for US tourists who want to explore the countryside and interact with merchants and others.
Tourism officials know they have a deep, ready-made pool of customers: the hundreds of thousands of Haitians who have left the country to start new lives in places such as Boston, New York, and Montreal. But even they will want a certain comfort level when they revisit their homeland, Buteau said.
“The diaspora will be our first target market,” Buteau said, “but you must not forget that a lot of them have been living in the United States, or Europe, or Canada, and they have become used to those standards.”
Lowering expectations is essential for any trip to Haiti, where even the airport, which opened in 1965, can be an anxiety-laden maze that requires patience, guesswork, and a high tolerance for frustration.
Haiti is maddeningly primitive and seemingly directionless, but its unexpected visual gifts — a rickety truck teetering with towering piles of bananas; a long, solemn funeral procession on a dusty road; a collage of vibrant color in a makeshift market — leave a lasting, profound impression.
This is a country that is hard to navigate and hard to understand, but it is a country that teems with life in all its disarming simplicity and harsh complexity.