Tourism could boost Haiti's economy

After years of instability, this island in the Caribbean is promoting itself to tourists.

Feel like being alone on a two-mile stretch of white sand beach, taking a swim with dolphins in the Caribbean sun, or hiking a mountain trail laced with waterfalls? Sounds like an ideal vacation - but couldn't be in Haiti, right?

Think again. After years of political instability, violence, and poverty drove tourists away from what once was referred to as the Pearl of the Antilles, Haiti is again promoting itself as a tourist destination in the Caribbean.

The long-term potential for tourism is high, tourism industry experts here say, and could help Haiti lift itself from its economic morass.

"Tourism is the only possible source of revenue for the country," says Patrick Delatour, architect of the master plan for the development of tourism in Haiti.

The office of the Secretary of State for Tourism hopes to increase its hotel rooms from 1,800 to 4,000 and employ 30,000 people by 2004, Haiti's 200-year anniversary.

State Tourism employee Berthide Noailles says some other goals include revamping the southern coastal town of Jacmel, developing the country's national heritage and tourist attractions, such as the Citadelle in the north, and rehabilitating the country's coastal area.

But the road is literally and figuratively laced with potholes. Less than a quarter of the country's 2,580 miles of roads are paved. State supplied electricity is at best sporadic, available to less than half the population in the capital, and only 3 percent in the rest of the country. There are just 64,000 telephone lines (6 per 1,000 inhabitants).

"We are aware of the reality of our country," Ms. Noailles says. "We know that Haitians prefer to take their vacations outside of Haiti, just like we know that it is difficult to attract foreigners to take their vacations here."

The world's largest cruise ship, Voyages of the Sea, docks for a few hours off Haiti's northern coast, but passengers stay only in a restricted beach area. They are told they are going to Labadie, a small island in the Caribbean, not that Labadie is Haiti.

The lush, tropical feeling of the country's five-star hotels, all located in the capital's metropolitan area, provide room service, cable television, and international phone lines. But the rooms look out on haphazardly built tin shacks that have no electricity or running water.

Club Med closed in May 1999, citing lack of business, though Haitian officials say they expect it will reopen.

Jacqualine Labrom, an independent travel agent, recently struck a deal with Coco Tours, which brings 1,000 Scandinavians per week to the Dominican Republic for a two-week stay. Ms. Labrom knew that she couldn't sell Haiti as a two-week destination stop, but she offers a two-day side trip to Haiti that brings about 70 guests per week. Tourists visit the capital, sample indigenous fare, and shop for handicrafts at a mountainside gift store.

Coco tours also stops at the popular Oloffson Hotel in the only leafy section of the capital. Although hotel owner Richard Morse profits from the business, he is reluctant to promote Haiti to the uninformed tourist.

"When you're looking for a symphony and somebody gives you a few notes, it's a nice melody, but it's not what you're looking for," he says. "Tourism is such a huge endeavor. [The government] started publicizing tours before [it] fixed the airport. If someone gets sick at the beach, or the tour bus has a flat tire, what do you do? There are no phones, no medical service, no roads."

It's because of such inconveniences that Haitians who can afford to often prefer to take a weekend break in the United States, or travel across the border to the Dominican Republic.

"I keep saying, why go to Miami and the Dominican Republic, why not get to know Haiti?" tour guide Labrom says.

One of the destinations Labrom offers is the renovated hotel Relais de l'Empereur in Petit Goave, a two-hour drive southwest of the capital.

Zache Michel, a former Wall Street broker, left Haiti in 1966. But he returned in 1991 to fix up the dilapidated home of Haitian Emperor Faustin Soulouque, who lived there from 1849-1856.

The reception area of the brick structure is scattered with small tables holding chess boards. Large wooden doors open onto the town's central square. Steep stairs lead to the 10 guest rooms. Each looks out on a mountain or seaside vista, and all are outfitted with four-poster beds and porcelain bathtubs with gold-plated fixtures. The hotel also offers a boat trip to its private stretch of sandy beach, barbecue included.

It's impossible to get a room on the weekend without a reservation. "People are curious," Mr. Michel says. "They want to explore different things. They want a break from the jet-set life. There are people who come here precisely because we offer something different - it's our asset."

Destination DjonDjon, which means mushroom in Creole, is a coalition of local groups that formed in 1998 to promote tourism. The group offers everything from sleeping on a straw-mat in a ti kay pay (thatched-roof house), to eating locally prepared food by candlelight, or attending a Vodou ceremony.

"We created Destination DjonDjon to help develop the natural and historic [wealth] in rural areas," says Celine Chauvel, who heads Haiti's Alternative Tourism Program for Association Francaise des Volontaires du Progrs, a French nongovernmental agency. "But we know that the first thing we have to have is training, because the groups can't promote themselves without a qualified product."

Many of the groups are new, and lack experience dealing with tourists. But others, like the most established member of Destination DjonDjon, DOA/BN (Delegations, Orientations, Local Production with Bluntschli and Nicolas) has been providing historical and cultural guided tours throughout Haiti since 1992. Participants can experience life in the countryside, says co-founder Carla Bluntschli, "to give the outside world a chance to really explore Haiti at its most beautiful, richest level."

Despite the briefings, some tourists are surprised by what they see. Vibele Starkas, an office educator in Denmark, says, "It's hard to reconcile the difference between my life in Denmark and the lives of the people I see here."

But others, like Bente Knusden, a Danish government employee, says she's glad she came. "I knew that there was a very big difference between the rich and poor in some parts of the world. But now I understand that some people can pay their taxes, and some people really can't."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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