But is the country truly ready to receive droves of foreign tourists?
In the last 20 years or so, I have crisscrossed Haiti, covering coups, chaos and carnivals. My visits to my beloved homeland have always been business, with an occasional escape to the beach or mountains thrown in between.
But with the country enjoying a semblance of stability, the Haitian government has been on an all-out blitz to convince foreigners that Haiti is open for business and that they should come for a visit, despite what they have heard about the mountainous, magical and troubled Caribbean nation.
Recently, Delta Airlines, which flies a daily flight from New York to Port-au-Prince, has been assisting the government in its quest to change Haiti’s image. I was one of a dozen journalists invited by Delta Airlines and the Haitian government to visit Haiti and share with our audience what they could find in Haiti.
I applaud the government’s tenacity and audacity. I left Haiti when I was 10 years old but Haiti never left me 40 years later. So I keep coming back.
I thought about the offer for a few minutes and I accepted. I had been writing about the misguided strategy of developing tourism industry with all of the problems besieging the country.
But I wanted to be fair and hear their argument and why they think developing the tourism sector is the best strategy at this time. And of course, it was nice to visit Haiti without having a deadline, or rushing from one business meeting to another.
Delta and the government put on their best face. We were whisked from one reception to another, and treated royally. My colleagues got a good sense of the best that Haiti has to offer: food, folkloric dance, a Vodou ceremony, and the Citadelle (a UNESCO heritage monument). The beaches were inviting and warm, and the people, extremely friendly.
But we also saw Haiti with all of its rawness. Despite its best efforts, the government couldn’t stop the grinding traffic, the trash, the putrid smell and a complete lack of infrastructure.
Almost four years after the earthquake, new hotels have opened, new ones are being built and existing hotels are expanding to fill the need for rooms in Port-au-Prince. I applaud the entrepreneurs who have built hotels and are seeking investors for new ones. These initiatives are long overdue.
It was refreshing to hear that people in the tourism industry reaching out to investors and understand that partnership and cooperation is part of the new world order. For years, Haiti couldn’t get an international hotel chain to come. A Best Western Premier recently opened. Marriott and Hilton are both building hotels, and Spanish and Latin American companies are also on the ground. We’ve come a long way from when the slogan of most of the elite was “No running water, no electricity, no telephone: Haiti love it or leave it.”
We’ve realized that too many people have been leaving to the detriment of the country and now there is a change in attitude.
There again, progress in the rule of law and respect for property and a sense of fair play remain challenges that we must overcome as we move forward.
While I disagree with investing heavily in tourism at this point, I understand the lure. Tourism is a glamorous industry and the government can look back and point to resorts and high-rise hotels as part of its legacy and pat itself on the back.
Bear in mind, that these things can quickly become white elephants with one outbreak of a communicable disease or political unrest. Tourism can be a fickle industry.
One major complaint during our sojourn in Haiti was the poor quality of service. Waiters simply don’t have the feel for what a client needs. And the food, while delicious, was often served randomly at a group table. Everyone in our group admitted that service is a major issue in an industry where service is paramount. There are few schools for hotelier and service is simply not part of our more, despite our friendliness.
These things take time and this government appears to be in a rush to deliver a vibrant tourism sector before it leaves office in three years.
Recently, the Venezuelan and Haitian governments announced plans to develop Ile-a-Vache, a pristine piece of paradise in the Southern coast of Haiti, and bypass the teeming capital to build two airports — one in Les Cayes, and another in Ile-a-Vache — a 30-minute ride from the larger city for the international jet setters. I think one airport is enough and the investors should spend part of the money repairing the road in Carrefour to unclog the southern road so that local visitors don’t cringe at the snarl of traffic.
The bottom line is that Haiti is not yet ready for tourism. The government can build all of the hotels, repair the roads, provide electricity and communications, and it will still struggle to attract tourists. Right now, Haiti’s prices are not competitive and the other countries in the region will not sit idle and let Haiti pass them by. The Dominican Republic offers considerably more amenities for considerably less, and they’re not going to lose tourists to Haiti. Jamaica and the other smaller Caribbean islands have also mastered this industry.
We are neophytes in a sector made up of tried and true professionals. What we need mostly are better schools, universities, roads, security and clean streets. These are basic things that a nation needs no matter what industry it decides to develop. Haiti is about at least five years away from competing for foreign tourism. What it can do right now is target Haitians living overseas and compel them to visit their homeland, in addition to promoting local tourism.
In the process, Haitians will learn the intricacies of the industry without any permanent blows.
Garry Pierre-Pierre is the founder of Haitian Times. He is currently the executive director of the Center for Community and Ethnic Media at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism.
The views expressed in this Op-Ed are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Haitian Times.