For Your Next Caribbean Vacation, Haiti ... Maybe?
Haiti used to be a tourist hot spot in the Caribbean. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton regularly recounts how he and Hillary honeymooned in Haiti in 1975. There used to be a hopping Club Med just outside Port-au-Prince, but it closed in the '90s.
Now, the Haitian government is trying to revive some of its former allure, launching an aggressive campaign to market the poorest country in the hemisphere as a vacation hub.
President Michel Martelly says tourism could be a major driver of economic growth and could help lift Haitians out of poverty.
Despite political unrest, hurricanes, chronic poverty and the 7.0-earthquake three years ago that destroyed much of its capital, Haiti still has a lot to offer: warm weather, miles of undeveloped Caribbean coastline and a rich history.
"My goal is to reposition Haiti as a tourism destination and attract the leisure tourism," says Stephanie Villedrouin, Haiti's minister of tourism.
Villedrouin acknowledges that the island nation's tourism industry needs to be rebuilt. But she says it could be a major economic development tool for the country.
"These revenues for our economy will help us eradicate poverty, and take out people [earthquake victims] from the tents. That's the message," she says. "Don't just send money through a wire or through an NGO for us. Come and experience Haiti because we have so much to showcase."
Villedrouin recently signed a deal with a Canadian tour operator, Air Transat, to offer package tours to Port-au-Prince and a nearby beach.
She says these will be cultural tours, with visits to the National Museum, an artists' village where iron workers make distinctly Haitian sculptures, a rum distillery, and possibly a voodoo ceremony or a meal featuring griot, a Creole dish of fried goat.
"The product is there," she says. "Haiti was a tourism destination in the past — before the Dominican Republic, before Cuba. The natural sites, the spirit of the people, the culture is all still there. And even more than before, it's trying to revive."
Villedrouin says one of the first markets she wants to tap is the Haitian diaspora.
Not Set Up For Tourists
Elsewhere in the Caribbean, tourism is a huge industry, attracting millions of tourists and pumping billions of dollars into the island economies. To try to get a slice of that trade, Haiti is investing in new airports, hotels and a hospitality school.
In the northern city of Cap-Haitien, authorities are revamping the international airport in an effort to position it as a gateway to the country's potential tourist attractions.
The problem, however, is that Cap-Haitien and most of the rest of Haiti isn't set up for tourists. Rental cars at the Cap-Haitien airport start at $100 a day. Travelers leaving the airport have to pass through a chaotic slum to get to one of the few Western-style hotels. Hotel rooms are expensive and in short supply.
In the streets, overloaded motorbikes slap mirrors with SUVs and squeeze in between soot-belching trucks. Gray sludge overflows from open sewers. Piles of trash burn in ditches. The roads are pocked with jagged potholes. Missing drainage grates leave treacherous holes in the roadways that could doom a family's vacation before they even reach the hotel.
Just last month, the U.S. State Department issued a stern travel warning for Haiti, noting the lack of adequate medical facilities, the presence of cholera and limited police protection.
"No one is safe from kidnapping," the advisory warns. "In recent months, travelers arriving in Port-au-Prince on flights from the United States were attacked and robbed shortly after departing the airport. ... Haitian authorities have limited capacity to deter or investigate such violent acts, or prosecute perpetrators."
After a recent trip to Port-au-Prince, Canada's minister for international cooperation publicly pondered why a country with such high unemployment couldn't clean the "filth and garbage" from its streets.
Paradise, Fenced Off From Poverty
Partly because of these difficult conditions in Haiti's cities, two-thirds of the foreign visitors to the country each year — or about 600,000 in 2011 — never leave a fenced-off, private beach on the northern coast.
The main way to get to the remote resort is by cruise ship. In fact, the Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines built Labadee, the tropical beach playground enclosed by a fence. Massive boats — including the largest cruise ship ever built, the Allure of the Seas — can dock at its pier.
At Labadee, the developed and emerging worlds slam up against each other.
Inside the fence, cruise ship passengers in bikinis lounge on a pristine sandy beach. There's a roller coaster, a water slide, a zip line. Clients traveling in the elite suites can rent private cabanas. According to Royal Caribbean's website, the frozen rum "Labaduzee" is quite popular on the beach.
Outside the fence, a woman cooks rice and beans over an open fire. She sells lukewarm drinks out of a broken refrigerator that's been laid on its back in the dirt.
Inside the resort, it costs $12 to rent a floating beach mat. Outside, the minimum wage is $5 a day, and most Haitians struggle to survive each day on even less.
Juan Belizaire is a 30-year-old local man who drives a motorcycle taxi between Labadee and Cap-Haitien. He says the thousands of foreigners who arrive on cruises don't help this deeply impoverished corner of Haiti because they aren't allowed out of the resort.
"When the passenger comes in, he stays only on the beach. The company takes the passengers to stay only behind the fence," Belizaire says, standing next to the resort's black fence. "I don't like it like that."
The resort, however, is a crucial source of revenue to the Haitian government. Royal Caribbean pays $10 a head for each passenger it brings ashore — generating roughly $6 million for the Haitian Treasury in 2011, the government says. The resort also provides jobs, and some pre-screened souvenir vendors are allowed in. Supporters of the project also note that Royal Caribbean built a school in the area.
Despite this, Labadee remains a pocket of luxurious leisure walled off from the intense poverty around it. Just outside its fence, the roads are barely passable: Labadee is just six miles from Cap-Haitien, but the road is in such bad shape that it takes 45 minutes in a four-wheel-drive vehicle to get there. Many people don't even have electricity.
Marketing Haiti's Unique Culture
Martelly, the Haitian president, says tourists understand that his country has huge problems, but also a vibrant, unique culture.
"We have great music," says the former musician turned politician, laughing.
"I invite you to come to Carnaval," he says as an example, referring to Haiti's version of the pre-Lent bash that occurs throughout the Caribbean.
"It's probably the worst organized Carnaval," he says. Then he flashes the devilish smile that helped make him so popular on stage. "But it's the best Carnaval," he says. "It's fun, it's crazy."
And, he adds, you can get married three times in one night at the raucous street party.
But joking aside, Martelly says his government sees tourism as a major growth opportunity for a country usually known for disasters and misery.
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