Américas / July-August 1999
By Larry Luxner
A growing number of adventure travelers are visiting Haiti these days. They are attracted by the country's original art, unspoiled beaches, impressive fortresses and vibrant religious culture, all of which distinguishes Haiti when it comes to Caribbean tourist destinations.
Ernest V. Bellande, special advisor to the country's Ministry of Tourism in Port-au-Prince, says about 2,000 Germans a week are now crossing the border by bus from the Dominican Republic, which together with Haiti shares the island of Hispaniola.
Although the trend is encouraging, Bellande says that's not enough to bring back Haiti's tourist industry, which in the 1950s and 1960s was one of the strongest in the Caribbean. Today, following years of political violence and miserable economic conditions, only 150,000 tourists a year come to Haiti, including Haitians on family trips. That compares to the millions of North Americans and Europeans visiting Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, the Bahamas and other Caribbean islands.
Curiously, as late as 1981, Haiti and the Dominican Republic each had around 2,000 hotel rooms. Today, the Dominican Republic boasts over 40,000 rooms, while Haiti's stock has shriveled to only 1,000 rooms.
"Tourists used to visit Haiti, and go to the D.R. as a side trip. Now it's the reverse," complains Pierre Chauvet Fils, president of Agency Citadelle, one of Haiti's biggest travel agencies. "The political situation of 1986 onward [the year Jean-Claude Duvalier, known as "Baby Doc," was overthrown] created a bad image. We had very few North Americans visiting because of the very bad press. The country suffered a lot because of one-sided reporting. So now we need a little positive news."
Yet when it comes to politics or economics, there's almost nothing positive to say, given the current popular dissatisfaction with President Rene Preval and the almost total lack of foreign investment in Haiti. Meanwhile, the country's per-capita income continues to drop, falling from $345 in 1988 to $214 last year, according to the Inter-American Development Bank.
Nevertheless, the tourism industry is hopeful that Haiti's latest strategic plan for the development of Cap-Haïtien will make the country more attractive to visitors. The project, launched with $110,000 from the Organization of American States, seeks additional funding from private companies and foundations.
Haiti's second city, Cap-Haïtien had only 30,000 inhabitants in 1971. Today it counts over 300,000 and is still growing. A wealthy capital during colonial times, the city was burned to the ground three times -- in 1734, 1798 and 1802 -- and was destroyed again during an 1842 earthquake. Cap-Haïtien today suffers the same social and physical infrastructure problems as the rest of Haiti, though its historic center does have some well-preserved, Spanish-influenced mansions worth visiting.
Cap-Haïtien is only 20 minutes by car from some rather spectacular beaches, and about half an hour's drive from Sans Souci and the Citadelle.
According to the Ministry of Tourism's overly enthusiastic projections, Haiti could have 5,000 hotel rooms by 2004, and as many as 20,000 over the long term -- generating 30,000 direct jobs and 60,000 indirect jobs in construction, services and transportation.
Haitian-born Claude Larreur, acting director of the tourism unit at the OAS, insists that those numbers are not pie in the sky.
"This projection is based on the fact that our beaches and other tourism resources are as good as those of the Dominican Republic, so there's no reason we couldn't get to those levels," says Larreur. "The resources are there to make Haiti a first-class tourist destination. But right now, there are other priorities in Haiti. The resources the government can earmark for tourism are very limited. This is why we need external funding."
At the moment, he says, the OAS does not have the cash to carry out its strategic plan. "Our frustration is that there is no money to continue. This is why we were hoping to implement it -- if not the OAS, then someone else to pick up and run with it."
Despite the difficulties, tourists have been coming to Haiti for years. Undoubtedly, one of the country's strongest attractions is its highly original, vividly colorful paintings.
In 1935, U.S. art critic Selden Rodman visited Cap-Haitien and wrote a play, "The Revolution," about Haitian heroes Henri Christophe, Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Toussaint L'Ouverture. He later became co-director of the Centre d'Art with Dewitt Peters, and directed the painting of the famous murals in Eglise St. Trinite by Philomé Obin, Castera Bazile and Riguaud Benoit. In 1948, he opened a Haitian art center in New York to publicize its merits, and over the years has written several books on the subject.
Earlier this year, Rodman celebrated his 90th birthday at the Hotel Oloffson. This grand old mansion, located off the southern end of rue Capois -- one kilometer from the Champs de Mars in downtown Port-au-Prince -- is itself a tourist attraction of sorts, with its imposing gingerbread construction and native art for sale in the lobby. It was built in 1890s by the Sam family and is considered one of Haiti's most beautiful examples of Victorian architecture. In the 1950s, the Oloffson was a hideaway for celebrities like Noel Coward and Lillian Hellman. In the late 1950s, author Graham Greene was a guest there, and his novel "The Comedians" is set in a hotel modeled after the Oloffson.
While most tourists aren't likely to develop a long-term love affair with Haiti, as Rodman did, the desperately poor country does offer many charms not found elsewhere.
Besides the paintings, which are far cheaper than comparable works found in other Caribbean countries, visitors are often enchanted with Haiti's colorful minivans, known as "tap-taps," the sights and smells of Port-au-Prince's famous Iron Market, and humorous billboards in Creole advertising everything from Barbancourt rum to AIDS prevention.
At only 15 cents a ride, tap-taps are probably the cheapest and most interesting form of transportation anywhere in the Caribbean. But they're not for the faint-hearted, and are usually cramped and suffocating unless you happen to be lucky and get a seat up front, next to the driver.
The Iron Market is also not recommended for those with weak stomachs. Vibrant colors and strong smells permeate the fruit-and-vegetable atmosphere here, and you'll usually be greeted with smiles unless you try to photograph the market women without permission -- in which case you run the risk of being pelted with rotten tomatoes and banana peels.
When it comes to art, it's difficult to beat Haiti for variety and value. One good place to start is the Musée d'Art Haïtien, which is located at the intersection of rues Capois and Légitime and has Haiti's finest native art collection. About five blocks away is Rodman's Centre du Art; other recommended galleries are Nader (two locations, one downtown and the other in the Croix Desprez neighborhood); Galerie Issa, just down the block from the Oloffson, and the Damballa Art Gallery on Magasin de l'Etat.
Despite its obvious charms, many people are scared away from Haiti because of continuing political violence. In addition, Haiti is hard to get to, and get around in. Air connections aren't always the best, and there are only 590 miles of paved road for a country of 10,714 square miles -- an area the size of Maryland.
"Haiti is not ready for tourists and won't be for a long time," concedes Horace Hord, director of marketing for Atlantic-Caribbean at American Airlines in Miami, which has agreed to underwrite up one-third the cost of Haiti's tourist promotional efforts. "But Haiti is ready for visitors, both from the [black] diaspora and sophisticated travelers, who are not seeking today's Caribbean vacation experience."
Hord, speaking at a recent panel discussion on Haiti's tourism potential, said the country "must be prepared to compete aggressively for the investment capital needed to provide a better product, but at the same time develop and maintain a unique product, and pursue and attract a unique consumer."
Agrees Joël Thébaud, general manager of the 102-room Hotel Montana, which is located in the somewhat upscale Port-au-Prince suburb of Petionville: "The country is not ready for new investment as long as the appropriate public services are not available, such as electricity and water. For example, the telephone system has deteriorated. It wasn't so bad before. At the same time, we are ready for a limited number of cultural and adventure tourists, mainly Germans, [though] we're definitely not ready for American tourists."
Thébaud, who in the late 1980s directed Prominex Haiti -- a now-defunct investment promotion agency -- said there was talk of French hotel giant Accor building a 250-room hotel near Port-au-Prince International Airport, but nothing came of that.
While it's true that visitors don't have a wide range of choices when it comes to hotels in Port-au-Prince, there is much to occupy a visitor in Haiti, ranging from mountain climbing to sunbathing to touring the country's No. 1 tourist attraction: La Citadelle.
This giant fortification, ordered by Haiti's self-proclaimed King Henri Christophe in 1813, boasts 20-foot-thick walls and sits on top of a mountain near Cap-Haitien on the country's northern coast. It overlooks the ruins of Sans Souci -- an ornate palace constructed by Christophe, abandoned after the king's death and nearly destroyed by an earthquake in 1842. Both the Citadelle and Sans Souci are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
In 1984, Haiti's Institut de Sauvegarde du Patrimoine National (ISPAN) began restoring the complex at a cost of $12 million. The ambitious undertaking was completed in 1995.
"Originally, the project was the National Historic Park," said Bellande. "But then something had to be done because, in order to go from the port to the Citadelle and back, you have to pass through the city of Cap-Haitien, and it looked so lousy."
To rectify that, The Action Coalition -- a Washington-based design firm -- came up with a comprehensive plan earlier this year to beautify the port at Labadie, a fenced-off sandy peninsula just west of Cap-Haïtien that's used by Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines Ltd. as a private beach for its visiting cruise ships.
"Our challenge is to assure that in every step of the visit -- from the first step on the dock to the last moment in the Citadelle -- the experience is consistent, authentic, thoughtful and fun," says T. Allan Comp, director of The Action Coalition. "This is not an insurmountable challenge for the people of Cap-Haitien or the government of Haiti."
Bellande says Miami-based RCCL has pledged to spend $4 million to upgrade Labadie to accommodate its Eagle-class ships, which weigh 100,000 tons each and can carry 3,600 passengers and 1,500 crew members.
"This project was solely dependent on them bringing in that ship once a week," he said. "They'd also be willing to accommodate 300 to 500 passengers to see Cap-Haïtien. What we have in mind is to shuttle passengers by tenders [small boats] from Labadie to Cap-Haïtien. Once we fill the conditions set by Royal Caribbean, we can use the facilities to accommodate any cruise line. We've spoken to practically the whole FCAA [Florida Caribbean Cruise Association].
"The first step was to link up with Royal Caribbean to create a flow of tourist traffic that provides the economic base to create a system that gets you from the dock to the Citadelle and back again. The second step is to market that same experience to overnight visitors from the Dominican Republic and from other cruise lines. Once you have the capacity to make that experience work two days a week, you can make it work seven days a week."
Comp adds, however, that "the only way it'll work is if Haiti has a relatively stable government that can make funding agreements with international organizations."
In 1998, according to government figures, 246,221 cruise-ship passengers stopped in Labadie -- up 22% over the 238,429 visitors in 1997 but still lower than the 250,373 passengers who visited Labadie the year before.
"Haiti is a product for the adventure tourist," said Suzanne Seitz, a consultant for the Ministry of Tourism. "However, the master plan is aimed at making it a little easier for anyone to get around. It just needs more infrastructure in place."
Other areas the government wants to promote include Fort Libertie, Cote d'Arcadin, Jacmel, Aquin Saint-Louis du Sud, and the island of La Tortue, located off Haiti's northwestern coast.
Fort Libertie, in northeastern Haiti not far from the Dominican border, is quite accessible to the Citadelle and nearby beaches. The government owns several thousands of acres here, and has a tentative plan to build 10,000 hotel rooms in the Fort Libertie area.
Cote d'Arcadin, along the Gulf of Gonaive just north of Port-au-Prince, already boasts some luxurious resorts including the Moulin Sur Mer and Club Med.
Aquin Saint-Louis du Sud, located near Les Cayes in extreme western Haiti, could be the site for 2,000 to 3,000 hotel rooms overlooking the sea. Also nearby is the Grotto of Saint-Gregoire, an important voodoo holy site.
Jacmel, known as Haiti's handicrafts capital, is particularly popular for its skilled paper mache artisans and the New Orleans-style architecture of its 19th-century Victorian houses, with their steep roofs and gables, round turrets, high ceilings, balconies and rich fretwork embellishment.
If the conditions were right, tourists could also be lured to La Tortue, a 25-mile-long island off Haiti's northern coast, whose lonely white-sand beaches were recently voted among the 10 best in the Caribbean by Caribbean Travel & Life magazine.
Yet Dominique F. Carvonis, general manger of the Moulin Sur Mer beach resort and president of the Hotel and Tourism Association of Haiti, complains that political bickering and indifference have cost Haiti years worth of tourism development.
"If we really had a government that believed in tourism, we'd have a very different country," said Carvonis. "The opportunities through tourism are tremendous, and you don't need that much investment. Little by little, you will have investors coming. That's what we're fighting for."