Haiti is being tipped as the next big tourist destination for the Caribbean. Claire Dodd finds a country eager for visitors
A shipping container is lodged in a wall in Côteaux, on Haiti’s southern peninsula. Upside down, and perched on a spit of land between the road and the ocean, it leans at a precarious angle held in place by bent pieces of rebar. But with few trees left standing, it’s as good a place as any to seek shade. A few people sit in its shadow.
It’s late March and we’re the first tourists to return to the area with adventure travel company G Adventures, since Hurricane Matthew hit on 4 October. It’s hard to visualise what 145 mile-per-hour winds can do until you see it.
The town’s Catholic church is rubble. A life-size, headless Jesus shelters by one of the few intact walls. Where houses have been completely flattened, people have rebuilt them with found fragments of roofing. Blue tarp canopies with the words “Samaritan’s Purse” are a sign the aid agencies have been in. Occasional UN trucks trundle down the road.
“You used to not be able to see anything but the sea from here. It was all trees,” says Eliovil John Baptiste. Our guide to the caves of Grotte Marie Jeanne, he’s led us up the hillside above the neighbouring town of Port-a-Piment. The view – of the azure sea and white-sand beaches the area is known for – is still beautiful. And the hotels and restaurants along the coast are open, serving fresh lobster and fish.
The caves, one of the largest cave systems in the Caribbean, are a key attraction in the area. Crystal formations and vast hanging stalactites adorn successive nooks and yawning cavities. The roof of the visitor centre was blown off. But the hurricane also uncovered a new 100m chamber. Eliovil is keen for people to know the caves are still open. He wants visitors.
“The best way to help a community and an area is to come and visit,” says Valérie Louis, executive director of the Association Touristique d’Haïti which represents Haiti’s private sector players. “Helping NGOs is not the way. I think a lot of people are realising that tourism is the only way.”
It’s been seven years since an earthquake brought this culturally rich but economically impoverished Caribbean nation to its knees. Still wearing the scars from that disaster, the country is now picking itself up from another. But after a year of political paralysis, as elections stalled and an interim government was drafted, new President Jovenel Moïse is finally in place. Amongst the government’s top priorities? Developing a thriving tourism industry.
“We have a problem in that Haiti, for quite a while, was not on the tourism map,” says new minister of tourism, Jessy Menos, speaking to The Independent just three days into the job. Developing tourism, she says, is the second priority (after agriculture) in developing the nation. “Haiti is the poorest country in the Caribbean. Now we have to change it to the richest. Because Haiti is not poor – we’ve had bad management. We have things that are the envy of our neighbours.”
Tourism isn’t new to Haiti. In the 1950s and 1960s it was Port-au-Prince’s intoxicating mix of music, gingerbread architecture, and colourful art that drew the masses, including Hollywood greats. Those things are all still here, though many of the capital’s many great historic mansions – all intricate fretwork and turrets – remain earthquake-bruised.
Culturally, Haiti is a one-off. The first and only nation in the world born of a slave revolt, its culture – from its Creole language, to its Vodou religion – is a unique fusion of its African and European heritage. But if history has proved anything, it’s that decades of political upheaval and natural disasters have not been kind when it comes to attracting visitors.
It’s a poignant irony that Haiti’s rich culture and stunning landscapes – from soaring mountains to tumbling waterfalls – are so intact because there’s been such little development. “That’s the advantage of Haiti – it’s like time stopped with us,” says Louis. But things are changing. Yoga retreats and surf schools have also emerged in recent years.
Limited infrastructure and public transport means that escorted tours such as G’s are probably the most manageable (and affordable) way to explore the country. G began its 10-day tours in 2015, taking travellers around the country’s top historic and natural sites – from fortresses to waterfalls – as well as taking guests into local communities.
So how can Haiti develop a tourism industry without fundamentally changing its identity? And how can it make sure it benefits everyone? There’s a cruise terminal at Labadee in the north, though a perimeter fence and armed guards make it feel cut off from the communities around it.
Other big projects aimed at bringing back the tourists include the controversial development of Île-à-Vache – a resort billed as “the next St Barts” that’s displaced 10-15,000 locals in its bid to build 1,000 rooms for tourists. And in 2014, Carnival announced plans to develop a £55m cruise port at Tortuga island on the north shore. With the new government in place, the project soon may be resurrected. And there’s also work underway to promote Haiti as a twin destination with neighbouring Cuba. Haitian airline Sunrise already offers two routes.
The stop-start nature of the fledgling tourism industry has not been kind to some would-be entrepreneurs who also have a vision for what Haiti could offer travellers. Catherine Barrière, owner of the Auberge du Rayon Vert in Port-Salut left her native France to open the five-room hotel in 2005 after falling in love with the country. In 2013, after news that the local airport at Les Cayes would soon be open to international flights, they added 20 rooms – but the international flights never materialised. Neither did the expected tourism boom. Now running the hotel alone following her husband’s death, and with a loan to pay off, she’s concerned about the future. Our group of five were the only guests in the hotel during our visit – and with no state power supply since the hurricane, she’s having to ration electricity to night-time only to keep costs down.
“I can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel right now,” she says. “We were targeting tourism, but unfortunately, the country’s infrastructure didn’t follow. The reservation book is pretty empty and things are not going well. Basic infrastructure should be dealt with first – after that, we can think about tourism.”
Giving communities ownership of projects and the direct ability to have a financial stake in them will, of course, be crucial if the country is serious about using tourism as a means to broadly lift the living conditions of its citizens. Menos says it’s important to balance major projects with responsible tourism and smaller scale work that directly involves communities.
But things take time, especially in the stop-start climate in Haiti. The International Development Association (IDA) awarded a £35m grant to rehabilitate Haiti’s UNESCO World Heritage Site, the 19th-century Citadelle near Cap-Haitien in the north. The largest fortress in the Americas, it’s a symbol of Haiti’s independence – it was built following the successful slave uprising which won independence from France. The grant will go to improving access and promoting the area to the tens of thousands of cruise passengers at Labadee.
But what would the effect of mass tourism have on Haitian culture? Clearly there is a balance to be struck between attracting numbers significant enough to help improve Haiti’s infrastructure, and responsible tourism, like G, that benefits communities directly.
But looking purely from a visitor’s point of view, there is already much to lure travellers, especially those looking to experience that rarest of things; a non-commercialised destination. But being one of just a handful of tourists at each staggering place that you visit also serves to underline Haiti’s huge tourism potential. The question is, where does it go from here?
Delta flies from Heathrow to Port-au-Prince via Atlanta from £623pp
The Auberge du Rayon Vert has doubles from £72, B&B
A 10-day Highlights of Haiti trip starts from £1,749 with G Adventures, excluding flights