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Haiti experiences a tourism revival

Haiti’s history is one of both greatness and tragedy. Now known as the poorest country in the western hemisphere, the state is looking to tourism for a second chance

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Port-au-Prince, Haiti seen from the Fermaithe countryside 

Haiti has had many identities in its history. Once known as San Domingo, the wealthiest colony of the pre-revolutionary French Empire, the country soon became the site of the first successful slave uprising in the modern era, when in the late 18th century the enslaved inhabitants of the island rose up against their owners. After years of war – first against the nation’s domestic slave owners, and then against various failed expeditions by the French – Haiti established itself as the first black-ruled modern political republic in 1804.

Such a title made it both a pariah on the international stage and a beacon of freedom for many others around the world, but this ultimately resulted in it being heavily penalised by the remaining European powers in the region, with it being subjected to forced sanction payments by its former ruler, France. However, throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, Haiti became an area of interest to many Americans, and gained a reputation as a mysterious place filled with revolutionary intrigue.

The rise and fall
Haiti initially started to see a boom in its tourism industry in the post-war era. Many tourists flocked to the capital, Port-au-Prince, for its waterfront, which had recently been developed to be able to accommodate regional cruise ships. Tourists came to see Haitian art and so-called ‘voodoo shows’, while Americans – as was the case with much of the Caribbean at the time – came to gamble.

By the 1970s, tourism to the island had reached 150,000 visitors annually – no mean feat in what were only the early years of mass international tourism. Even a newlywed Bill and Hillary Clinton frequented the island for a vacation. However, political volatility and an eventual civil war destroyed the tourism industry in Haiti for the remainder of the 20th century.

While a boom in tourism would not necessarily reverse Haiti’s economic fortunes, it would certainly relieve them

Now, however, the industry is set to return: according to numerous ‘where to go’ guides, Haiti should rank highly on any prospective tourist’s list of must-see destinations. One recent article on the Huffington Post website described it as a destination for the “perfect family holiday in 2015”, while The Independent placed it among its top 10 travel destinations for the year.

But it is not just travel journalists noticing the country’s tourism potential: the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) also seems to see something of a tourism revival for the country. At the end of 2014, the IDB, citing the country’s inviting beaches, rich landscape and cultural history, “approved a $36m grant to foster tourism around Haitian historic, cultural and natural resources along the country’s southern coastline that will create tourism-related jobs for the region’s low-income residents”.

The Haitian state itself has also been busy heavily promoting and investing in tourism. As one article from Foreign Affairs magazine noted, the Haitian Government has been “wooing investors with tax breaks and the promise of internationally funded infrastructure upgrades”, also noting “the government has developed a plan that includes a new airport, a series of hotels, and an 18-hole golf course”.

If Haiti is set for a bout of renewed tourism, it could not come at a better time. The country is still rebuilding itself following its shattering 2010 earthquake. Despite the £14bn (in today’s money) punitive punishment – or so-called ‘independence fee’ – that France, at the barrel of the gun, forced the beleaguered but victorious Haitian founders to pay, the country had not fared too badly until recently: until the 1960s, its score on the Human Development Index was roughly on a par with that of Australia and Canada.

Since then, however, Haiti has plummeted down every ranking of human prosperity or wellbeing, often coming near the bottom globally. It has also gained the title of the poorest country in the western hemisphere. The reasons for this decline are numerous, ranging from unfair trade policies with the US to political corruption, violence and instability. Whatever the primary cause, the result is the same: Haiti and many Haitians are desperately poor, and a boom in tourism could set about redressing that.

Repairing the damage
A revival in tourism will result, firstly, in an increased influx of foreign hard currency to the island. As is the case with many Central and Caribbean American states, tourists from the US and Europe often opt to bring and spend US dollars, rather than deal with either hard-to-obtain or very nearly valueless local currencies. Most bars, restaurants, transport operators and stores will regularly accept the sought-after US dollar, and so, beyond the immediate benefits afforded to Haitians employed in such jobs, the influx of hard currency will also benefit the economy in general.

Haiti produces very few domestic exports, a major source of its economic woes, and this means that it is reliant upon importing what it consumes. With the Haitian currency valued at so little, access to dollars will facilitate trade. Trading in dollars – now in increased supply thanks to tourists – will allow Haitians to import essentials at a far lower cost. A revival of tourism should hopefully provide this boost while, ideally, encouraging higher-paid jobs in other sectors of the economy.

One of Haiti's famously colourful buses
One of Haiti’s famously colourful buses

A boom would also mean a large number of members from Haiti’s reserve army of labour would be needed to either build new hotels or upgrade existing ones. As the IDB noted: “In the picturesque beach town of Port Salut, for example, there are few hotels that would be deemed attractive and comfortable to most foreign tourists.” At the same time, existing businesses will see, presumably, an uptick in demand, from taxi drivers to local street stall sellers.

As the IDB further pointed out: “The tourism programme has the potential to generate much-needed income for low-income residents of Haiti’s southern region, who could be employed as tour guides and hotel workers, start their own small businesses, or fish, produce, and distribute food for local markets that feed workers and tourists alike.”

While a boom in tourism would not necessarily reverse Haiti’s economic fortunes, it would certainly relieve them, and perhaps offer the start of greater economic regeneration. Haiti shares the same island as the Dominican Republic, and while the Dominican Republic is also a relatively poor nation, it is significantly better off than Haiti: while Haiti, out of 183 countries, ranks 165th with a GDP per capita of $1,732, the Dominican Republic is 84th, with the much higher figure of $13,262, according to the World Bank (2014 rankings). Crucially, the Dominican Republic has, and continues to sustain, a thriving tourism industry.

Myths to be addressed
In order to develop Haitian tourism, however, a number of points of action must be taken: first, the idea of Haiti as a violent and lawless place needs to be addressed. As Haiti’s Tourism Minister, Stephanie Vlleddrouin, has said: “One of biggest challenges [is] the perception of Haiti worldwide… and how to change this image.”

Haiti has a similar crime rate to that of Long Beach, California. This actually makes it a much safer destination than many other popular Caribbean tourist destinations, and immensely safer than many Central American nations and tourist hotspots, including Mexico and Honduras. And while it is true Haiti is prone to an occasional flair-up of political turmoil, such as a recent spate of protests over its presidential election, street crime is relatively low. Tourists are naturally advised to avoid such rallies, but following the news is a simple way to avoid becoming entangled in any such politically fuelled (albeit low-level) violence.

Haiti is far from unique in this regard, with its violent political demonstrations hardly more common than they are in popular European destinations such as Athens. Of course, Haiti does have a governance issue, which does engender such protests, but as with many of Haiti’s troubles, economic growth is the solution, and boosting tourism will be a key factor in achieving this.

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