San Juan Star / February 21, 2004
By Larry Luxner
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — This was supposed to be a banner year for tourism in Haiti.
With the country's 200th anniversary of independence from France as a selling point, foreign visitors — particularly African-Americans — were expected to flock to the Caribbean nation with their dollars, euros and pounds, in search of Haiti's colorful handicrafts, voodou culture and natural beauty.
Instead, as a violent insurrection against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide spreads throughout the country, the U.S. government is urging its citizens to leave Haiti immediately, while commercial flights are still available.
"Most people are concerned about political stability, not festivities," said Elisabeth Silvéra Ducasse, vice-president of the Association Touristique d'Haiti (ATH) and owner of the El Rancho Hotel in Petionville.
Despite the chaos, the largest hotels in Port-au-Prince aren't hurting.
"When we don't have normal tourists, and for a long we haven't had any, we get businesspeople, OAS experts and journalists. At the moment, we're full of journalists," she said, adding that so is the nearby Hotel Montana and the Hotel Le Plaza in downtown Port-au-Prince.
Silvéra added, however, that "the beach hotels are empty. Even local tourists aren't going on the roads because they're afraid. Aristide has given his thugs lots of weapons."
Jean Christophe Lang is owner of the Hotel-Restaurant Cyvadier Plage in Jacmel, along Haiti's scenic, relatively quiet south coast.
"Arrivals were already low, but now they've practically gone down to zero," he said by phone from Jacmel. "This is not what I was supposed to have this season."
Nevertheless, the ATH still meets every Tuesday in a little house up the road from the El Rancho. The association has 44 members, of which 20 are hotels; the rest are travel agencies, restaurants and art galleries.
Giliane Cesar Joubert, executive director of the ATH, said Haiti has 846 hotel rooms at present (that compares to over 50,000 rooms in the neighboring Dominican Republic).
The largest hotels in Haiti are the Montana (120 rooms); Le Plaza, formerly the Holiday Inn (104); El Rancho (100); Moulin Sur Mer (70); Villa Creole (69) and Kaliko Beach (55).
"We were supposed to have 5,000 hotel rooms by 2004 if the master plan had been put into practice. But unfortunately it was not done," he said.
A 140-room Caraibe Hotel & Convention Center is also planned, as well as a convention center that can accommodate 500 people. For several years now, there's also been talk of a Hilton to go up near Port-au-Prince International Airport. The local rumor is that this 300-room giant represents a $30 million investment.
"We don't know if it's going to be built," said Silvéra. "We haven't seen anything yet."
For now, the Royal Caribbean Cruise Line continues to send its cruise ships to Labadie, a private resort along Haiti's north coast near Cap Haitien. Two ships a week bring 5,000 to 6,000 tourists to the area; future plans call for offering excursions to the nearby Citadelle, a mountaintop castle built by King Christophe in 1813.
"People say Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. I say we're the richest country," said Joubert. "We simploy do not know how to exploit ourselves. We need to look at things in a positive manner."
Fred Pierre-Louis, owner of Le Plaza, said that at least 50% of his guests carry U.S. passports, but that of those 50%, at least 80% are of Haitian origin.
"We are surprised that more and more people have been coming as tourists, yet we are extremely annoyed that there's a complete barrier in the travel industry to sell Haiti," he said. "American Airlines sells 300,000 tickets a year to people coming here, and every ticket you buy has hotels.com printed on it. But when we try to go to hotels.com, Haiti's not even mentioned. It's nonsense."
Silvéra points out that "30% of the people who visit the Dominican Republic are interested in coming to Haiti, but we don't have the possibilities of receiving them and giving them what they're looking for. This is what the tour operators have told us."
As an example, she said, a tourist traveling by car from the Dominican border be able to get to Cap Haitien in 20 minutes. But because the road is in such poor condition, the trip now requires two hours.
Pierre-Louis said his organization's goal is for Haiti to eventually receive 2 million visitors a year and build at least 35,000 to 40,000 hotel rooms in the next 15 years.
"We want Port-au-Prince to be a transit point. This is what's going to change the Haitian economy," said the hotelier, adding that if Haiti could achieve those numbers, the tourist industry would generate $2 billion a year for the country.
"Today, no government can be successful. You can't run a country of 8 million people with a $300 million budget. They can't pay teachers or build roads. We have to change that. The government must have at least $1 billion, so we have to exploit tourism."
He adds: "Cuba did it in 10 or 12 years, the Dominican Republic did it in 18 years. We have fantastic beaches and a culture which is completely different. We just don't have the infrastructure. American travel agents aren't interested in selling Haiti because they're not going to get any commissions. There's not one hotel in Haiti that charges more than $150 a day, so why should they send anyone to Haiti?"