Registration has just opened for the forthcoming conference ‘After Revolution: Versions and Re-visions of Haiti’ co-hosted by the Institute for Black Atlantic Research and the University of Liverpool. The conference takes the centenary of the US occupation as an occasion to explore Haiti’s history, politics and culture since its 1804 Declaration of Independence. I’ll be presenting a paper, on representations of Haiti in travel guidebooks produced during and since the US occupation. There’s a great line-up of speakers, including the curator and long-time photographer of Haiti Leah Gordon, with keynote addresses by anthropologist/performance artist Gina Athena Ulysse and Matthew Smith of the University of the West Indies (Mona).
The conference is in Preston, England on July 9-10. There’s more information here, and the full programme of speakers here (PDF).
Lonely Planet asked me to write about nightlife in Jamaica for their website. Most tourists concentrate their visits around Montego Bay, but I really wanted to take the chance to sing the praises of Kingston. It receives far too few visitors, but really is the cultural heart of the country, and there’s great music to find any night of the week, from live bands to fantastic street parties:
What Kingston is really famous for is its sound systems: giant speaker stacks with a ‘selector’ (DJ) playing the tunes and a ‘toaster’ acting as MC to the proceedings. Part block-party, part fashion show and all-out stereo war, sound-system parties are an essential Jamaican experience. They start late in the night and go on into the early morning so you’ll need to pace yourself – don’t even think of turning up before midnight.
For me, the real gem is Kingston Dub Club, up on the skyline above the city. It’s a great scene with locals of all stripes, elder Rastas, Japanese reggae enthusiasts, Red Stripe and rum, and DJs playing sublime dub on a set of decks under a huge mango tree. You can find some Soundcloud mixtapes here.
I listen to a lot of podcasts. One I’ve been enjoying a lot recently is Sources and Methods, a podcast describing itself as a show where ‘interesting people doing interesting things get to talk about the what, how and why of what they do.’
I’ve known one of the hosts, Alex Strick, for a number of years – he helped out with the Pashto phrasebook section of my Lonely Planet Afghanistan guidebook – and was thrilled when he asked if I would be interviewed for the podcast. In the resulting hour-long discussion we range from the mechanics of researching travel guides, the nature of writing about countries where visitors are more likely to be NGO workers than tourists, and the challenges and opportunities for guidebooks in a digital landscape where everyone can upload a hotel review to TripAdvisor, and expect to get the resulting travel information for free.
I also got to play a mini-round of Desert Island Discs, picking a book, a film and a song to recommend – the hardest aspect of the entire interview!
You can listen to the podcast here (where you can also read the accompanying show notes), or via iTunes or Stitcher.
January 12 2015 was the fifth anniversary of Haiti’s earthquake. The anniversary is usually the prompt for a slew of articles about the failures of reconstruction, and press releases from NGOs explaining that while there have certainly been plenty of problems, the work they’ve personally done has been great. But this year, there has been a new theme: the rise of Haitian tourism.
Lonely Planet (for whom I coordinated two editions of the sadly-missed Dominican Republic & Haiti guide) asked me to weigh in on the subject in an article for their website:
Say ‘Haiti’ and most people’s first response isn’t likely to be ‘holiday destination’. From political troubles to natural disasters, recent decades haven’t been kind to this Caribbean nation. Five years on from the devastating earthquake that shook Haiti to its foundations, the country is still rocked by an ongoing political crisis and struggling to haul itself out of the rubble. But there’s a change in the air, and Haiti is loudly proclaiming itself ready to welcome tourists back to its shores. Visitor numbers are up and the word is out: Haiti is, supposedly, the hot new travel destination for 2015. We ask if Haiti is really ready for tourists.
You can read my full article here. Spoiler alert: Yes, Haiti is ready (but terms and conditions apply).
It’s been hard to keep up with all the coverage that Haitian tourism is getting right now. When I started writing my Bradt Haiti guidebook , there were occasional speculative pieces about whether tourism could really return, (this piece from 2012 is a typical example), but the long PR game that the ministry of tourism has been playing does seem to be paying off, as the stories have not only multiplied, but crossed over from the foreign news and business pages to the travel media proper. Haiti has hit the top travel destinations for 2015 in the Independent, the Guardian, Rough Guides, Travel+Leisure, Wanderlust and the Travel Channel. It’s been a long time since the country has such overwhelmingly positive press. Tourist arrivals seem to be rising accordingly.
Several articles have caught my eye in the past week. The Huffington Post published a big piece extolling the virtues of Haiti as a family destination. The writing is a bit breathless, but it has the genial tone of someone collaring you because they can’t stop talking about their great vacation. It’s a big contrast to the editor of Yahoo Travel who went to Haiti on a press trip and spent the entire time scared of whether her hotel door would lock, worrying about the food, and jumping at the ‘hostile’ locals. One gets the sense that Disneyland would have been a destination too far for this nervy writer (the same press trip also generated this far cheerier ‘Top 5 Experiences in Haiti” advertorial on the G Adventures website).
Forbes published a useful three part series on Port-au-Prince (here, here and here). There’s a strong focus on Port-au-Prince’s fancy new hotels here – for balance, read them alongside Emily Troutman’s interviews with the hotels’ Haitian staff. The article’s headline feels deliberatively provocative, but the interviews themselves are a model of empathy. Finally, the New Yorker takes a look at the complicated and much-overlooked issue of land-ownership in Haiti. While this might not seem directly tourism related, it covers directly touches on the proposed Carnival cruise port on La Tortue, and the controversial eco-tourism resort project on Île-à-Vache, shedding some light on why these projects can look great on paper but often run into big difficulties during implementation.
Of course, it’s rather unfortunate that all this coverage arrived just as Haiti was entering a period of political uncertainty, with the dissolution of parliament and President Martelly ruling by decree (in the consensus cabinet announced this week, the high-flying Stephanie Villedrouin was reconfirmed as Minister for Tourism). But for the travel press at least, Haiti’s moment does seem to have arrived. The challenge ahead is to follow through on the promise so that we can really say Haiti ap dekole: Haiti is taking off.
The new edition of Lonely Planet’s Jamaica hit the shelves last month, and I’m proud to be its lead author. It’s a fantastically interesting country to travel in, with multitudes to explore beyond the paradise clichés of the all-inclusive resorts. I’ve just written a mini-guide to the country for The Independent, which includes everything my favourite Kingston sound-systems to the island’s best festivals and food experiences. I was particularly pleased to sing the praises of the capital, which is often unfairly maligned as a travel destination:
Kingston has frequently been regarded as the sort of place you would arrange your trip to avoid, but these days the city is very much on the way up, brandishing a rich cultural life that is tempting travellers back through fine dining and local festivals.
The music scene is extraordinarily vibrant and a real eye – and ear – opener for anyone who thinks Jamaican music begins and ends with Bob Marley. From live jazz and roots poetry to raucous dancehall street parties, Kingston lays it on with the knowing self-confidence that is the country’s stock-in-trade.
You can read the full article here. The Lonely Planet guide to Jamaica is available here.
A little over a month ago I was in London at an adventure tourism promotion event at the Haitian embassy in London. I was rather touched to be called up to be presented with an ‘award’ for services to Haitian tourism by the Minister for Tourism Stephanie Villedrouin. But I was even more pleased to see so many tour operators present, many of whom have started to sell trips to the country. While I was writing the book, there was a regular stream of articles in the mainstream press about how Haiti was going to be the next big thing in tourism, but these only ever appeared in the business pages, rather than the travel sections of the papers. At last, the green shoots of an industry that appeared to have died a death some time in the mid-1980s finally seem to be putting in an appearance.
Here are three articles about Haiti I’ve been asked to write recently. The first is for Lonely Planet, about how travellers can experience Vodou:
Just saying the word ‘vodou’ brings forth a tumble of clichés, from the comedy witch doctors of the Bond movie Live and Let Die to Hollywood’s endlessly shuffling fascination with zombies. Lurid fears have been stoked about these religions since the time when Haiti’s slaves had the temerity to free themselves from Napoleon’s rule and set up the world’s first black republic two centuries ago, with propagandists and pulp novelists dining out on stories of cannibalism and possession by jungle drums ever after.
The other two articles are for G Adventures, who have a new tour to Haiti. The first tackles Haiti’s greatest sight, the magnificent Citadelle:
How many times have tourist boards sold a half-baked destination as the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World?’ Sometimes however, the real deal is tucked away in some long-forgotten corner, waiting for discovery. As Haiti makes tentative steps to reintroduce itself to the travel market, it carries a pretty impressive trump card in the shape of the magnificent Citadelle le Ferrière.
The complete piece can be found here. The second piece is about the delights of Jacmel on the south coast:
Of all the countries in the Caribbean, Haiti has perhaps the richest visual arts tradition. Even the local buses (known as taptaps) are often pimped and decorated to the point where they resemble art galleries on wheels. But nowhere in the country is the artistic tradition than in Jacmel, a few hours’ drive south over the mountains from Port-au-Prince.
I was thrilled to be asked to write the cover article for the current issue of Wings, the in-flight magazine of Arik Air.
Nigeria isn’t written about much as a tourist destination, but it’s a fascinating place, and for my money, Lagos is one of the most exciting cities on earth. Although I’ve covered the country twice for Lonely Planet’s West Africa guide, I wasn’t able to do it for the 2013 edition, so I’m pleased to get the opportunity to sing its praises here.
You can read the full article on the Wings website here, but the e-viewer version here is worth looking at to see how the article looks laid out with the beautiful accompanying photos by George Osodi.
I’m currently based in Amman, Jordan, and living downtown in the Rainbow Street area. Here’s a recent piece I wrote about the best shopping and eating options around Rainbow Street, for the October/November issue of J Magazine, the inflight magazine of Jazeera Airways.
In previous blogposts, I’ve looked at how how travel guidebooks to Haiti have reflected the concerns of the day, from the US occupation of Haiti in the early 20th century to the tourist boom of the 1980s. In the final entry in this mini-series, we can go back to the infancy of the guidebook itself and find Haiti there at the very beginning, giving a very different account of itself to the ones we’ve looked at so far.
The travel guidebook is a relatively young publishing phenomenon. Although guides were produced for the 18th century Grand Tour of Europe, it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that companies like Thomas Cook started producing what were recognizably the first ‘package tours’ that the genre took off. The debut Baedeker guide in English – traditionally thought of as the first recognizably modern travel guidebook series – was published in 1861. Amazingly, its appearance was beaten by a year by the first printed guide to Haiti, although its target market was rather different to those seeking the sites of Classical Europe.
A Guide to Hayti was published by James Redpath in 1860 under the auspices of the Haytian Bureau of Emigration in Boston. Despite being independent for over half a century, Haiti remained unrecognised by the USA, which was fearful of the powerful draw the country held over both free and enslaved African-Americans. Haiti was similarly aware of its beacon status, and its government had already made attempts to encourage emigration. A movement in the 1820s sponsored by President Jean-Pierre Boyer had already seen around 13,000 African-Americans settle in the republic.
In 1859, Fabré Geffrard became president of Haiti, having overthrown Emperor Faustin Soulouque in a coup, and began to revisit plans to encourage emigration to Haiti. He enlisted the help of the Scottish-American abolitionist James Redpath, who was encouraged to set up an office of the new Haytian Bureau of Emigration. Land was given over in the Artibonite Valley for settlers, and a budget of $20,000 set for the enterprise. A key part of this was the production of a written guide to encourage potential emigrants.
Redpath sets out his stall in the book’s introduction with a polemic designed to get the blood racing:
There is only one country in the Western World where the Black and the man of color are undisputed lords; where the White is indebted for the liberty to live to the race which with us is enslaved; where neither laws, nor prejudices, nor historical memories, press on persons of African descent; where the people whom America degrades and drives from her are rulers, judges and generals; men of extended commercial relations, authors, artists and legislators; where the insolent question, so often asked with us, “What would become of the Negro if Slavery were abolished?’ is answered by the fact of an independent Nationality of immovable stability, and a Government inspired with the spirit of progress. The name of this country is HAYTI.
Much of the book continues in this inspirational tone. The history of the island – and especially the revolution – is cast in the most valiant light possible. The chapters on geography are an insight into a green island with ‘exhaustless forests’ now largely lost to modern deforestation, but a lush one that would surely have enticed those looking to cultivate their own land as free men (certain passages still hold true today: ‘Cockroaches and ants are the greatest threat to housekeepers; they eat clothing and books with an extraordinary gluttony’). All information is tailored to the potential settler – the best land and soil types for certain crops, the best climate for particular livestock, even the relative abundance of different wood for the cabinet-maker seeking a new life.
Everything in the book contrives to paint a very seductive portrait of country, and the text regularly reminds African-American readers that Haiti is a beacon of liberty in comparison to its northern neighbour. ‘Men of our race, dispersed in the United States!’ booms the Haitian Secretary of State FE Dubois in a separate essay. ‘The doors of Hayti are open to you.’
In truth, Redpath is more interested in this hard sell than providing detailed travel information to his potential emigrants. Writing with the sigh of a guidebook writer who has returned from an exciting research trip but is dismayed by the pile of notes that demand to be written up, he concludes:
It is neither possible nor desirable to put in to a Guide Book … all that emigrants will ask. Hence, in this volume, the reader will find the essential facts only; for further information, he must apply, personally or by letter, to the office in Boston, where certified copies of the Governmental guarantees, the journals of Hayti, books of reference, maps, specimens of the ores, and of the staple cultures of the Island, will be found.
As a result, the chapter ‘How to go, and what to take to Hayti’ merely takes up a brisk three pages. (It’s instructive to compare the guide with The Prairie Traveler, an exhaustive manual for wagon trains on the Oregon Trail published a year later). Redpath essentially instructs emigrants to bring everything they think they might need, from clothing (‘take as many summer suits as you can afford to buy’) and tools (‘every family ought to have a saw, hammer, and nails’), to reading material (‘English books can seldom be had for love or money’) and livestock. About the only thing that seems to be available to purchase in Haiti is cane furniture.
The Haytian Bureau of Emigration – which also opened offices in New York and New Orleans – succeeded in bringing over 2000 emigrants to Haiti. Of those who made the journey, the most celebrated emigrant was the church minister Joseph Theodore Holly, a noted evangelist for Haiti as a home for African-Americans. Holly helped found the Episcopal Church in Haiti, and was its first bishop. Thirty years after arriving in Haiti, he oversaw the construction the Sainte Trinité Cathedral, which become famed for its extraordinary Biblical murals by the masters of Haitian art, and later reduced to rubble during the 2010 earthquake.
The success of the Guide to Hayti was relatively short-lived. In June 1862, just over a year into the American Civil War, the United States finally gave diplomatic recognition to Haiti. Six months later, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, explicitly shifting the war aims of the Union and making abolition inevitable. The staunchest supporters of emigration now shifted their efforts inwards; Redpath himself left the Bureau to become a war correspondent.
In the second half of the 20th century, Haiti became known as a net exporter of people rather than a destination for emigrants. But with a neat irony, the Haitian tourism industry today is putting its biggest efforts into attracting the Haitian-American Diaspora back to the country for their vacations. Visitors today, however, are encouraged to bring their swimsuits rather than hammers and nails.
For almost a century after its independence in 1804, Haiti sat largely apart from the international mainstream, little-visited and ostracised by many. When it made headlines at all, it was as the recipient of the crudest form of gunboat diplomacy, when a naval cruiser from one of the major European powers or America would threaten to shell Port-au-Prince unless reparations were paid for some imagined slight against one of its nationals. On July 28 1915, all this was to change. The USS Washington weighed anchor in Port-au-Prince harbour and disgorged several hundred marines, who quickly took control of strategic locations.
For the next 20 years, thousands more Americans followed their army to Haiti – businessmen, missionaries and even the occasional tourists. And they all needed help when they got there. In short, they needed a travel guide. In a previous blog I talked about what the Haitian guidebooks of the 1980s could tell us about contemporary attitudes to the country, and it’s instructive to look at what literature was available for the many Americans heading to Haiti during the occupation. Of these, the most important was the bilingual Livre bleu d’Haïti (The Blue Book of Hayti), produced in 1920 under the auspices of the Haitian government.
The Americans were ostensibly in Haiti to provide stability to the country, and counter German influence in the Caribbean during a time of world war. However, the occupation also brought with it the opportunity to remake Haiti in America’s image. Having taken control of the banks, customs houses and the presidency, a new constitution (drafted by Franklin D Roosevelt) was forced through parliament allowing foreigners to own land for the first time since independence. Haiti was now a land of opportunity. The introduction to the The Blue Book of Hayti states the case very clearly:
Haiti is a very interesting country and if proper propaganda would make it rightly known to the outside world, most certainly its good and healthy climate would attract a great number of tourists which would render inevitable the construction of comfortable and large hotels [and] central parks which in time would bring the desired progress to the country. The Haitian soil, which has never been cultivated, contains immense wealth and would guarantee the development of industrial and commercial enterprises, and the main desire of the country is to interest foreign and especially American capitalists to invest in the exploitation of Haitian soil, mines and woods, which would certainly prove to be one of the best investments in the world.
The Blue Book of Hayti is a 260-page gazetteer to the country. There are sections on history, geography and the like, but what’s really important to its readers is making money and getting on in society. So, there are pages dedicated to customs warehouses, import businesses and municipal works, interspersed with biographies of the well-to-do Haitians you might meet or (possibly) receive a dining invitation from. With luck, you might run into the ‘genial and sympathetic personality’ of George Baussan, architect of the Palais National, or president-to-be Louis Borno (‘kindly of manner and benevolent of heart’). Photographic portraits are even provided for identification, and are particularly revealing – the leading Haitians are all pale skinned, the officers of the newly-reconstituted armed forces are American to a man, and women are represented in a peculiar seven-page spread entitled ‘Beauties of Hayti – Popularity Contest.’
It’s just possible that the visitor to Haiti is interested in seeing the country as much as making money from it. This was the earliest era of international cruising, and publishers were scrambling to produce guides to the new recreational travellers. The famous The South American Handbook, (updated annually and now in its 90th edition) dates from this period, while Haiti makes an appearance as part of a cruise itinerary in Frederick Albion’s A Guide to the West Indies, Bermuda and Panama (1920).
Much as many Caribbean guidebooks today still give Haiti the widest of berths, you get the sense that Albion could hardly bring himself to disembark when his ship arrived in Cap-Haïtien. ‘Let it be understood,’ he writes of anyone planning a trip to Haiti, ‘that he does it solely upon his own responsibility.’ The change of tone from the rest of the book is jarring. Elsewhere, Bermuda is described in painterly colours, Havana offers the visitor beautiful views and graceful ladies wearing mantillas, while readers are charmed by Jamaica’s English-style villages complete with boys playing cricket. As for Port-au-Prince, the visitor is ‘advised not to plan to linger in this city, unless certain of a welcome from the American colony which now numbers several hundred members.’
Those readers who forgot to pack their copy of The Blue Book of Haiti and it’s spotter’s guide to Haitian society would have found a welcome from the various social and sports clubs set up by the Americans. The Pétionville Club (which found unfortunate fame after the 2010 earthquake when its golf course became home to a large tent camp run by Sean Penn’s aid outfit JP/HRO) was established during the US occupation. Female travellers could join The Colony Club of Haiti, set up in 1924 by the wives of US Marines officers.
In contrast with the guidebooks of today, which sell themselves through offering as many chances for readers to experience countries as locals do, Albion wants to insulate as far as possible readers from accidentally encountering Haiti as it actually existed for Haitians. Take public transport for example:
The [buses] are ramshackle affairs and their seats hardly inviting. Get advice from a resident of your own class as to both carriage and motor service … There are perhaps 100 miles of so-called rail-roads in Haiti. Trains run at less than bicycle speed and, for that and other reasons, are seldom patronized by whites.
Likewise, those wishing to experience the wider country don’t find much encouragement:
[Jacmel] offers nothing startling beyond the fact that it claims 6,000 Baptists. There are no special attractions here for the traveller, as one may pursue his investigations of people and resources at better advantage in the capital, or at the Cape. The streets are no cleaner than they should be, and the hotels are, frankly, Haitian.
Ironically, those Americans who did manage to travel more widely in Haiti would probably ended up finding favour with the guidebook’s author. The US occupation prompted a mini-boom in travelogues and memoirs about Haiti visitors, all intent on appropriating its cultural capital. Books like William Seagrove’s Magic Island (and its spin-off Hollywood movie White Zombie) sold a twisted ‘Voodoo’-soaked Haiti to the American public. The potency of this imagery proved so powerful as to inform narratives about Haiti to the present day. In the 1970s the Haitian government even used this imagery to sell the island back to prospective American tourists, while in a May 2013 survey of package tourists visiting Haiti, 90% of respondents said that they’d hoped to see ‘voodoo performances’ during their trip.
Travel guidebooks have thankfully evolved a long way from the parochial and casually racist attitudes of the 1920s. But the US occupation of Haiti still casts a long shadow, and what makes these books interesting today is how much can be carried forward to the present. The relentless focus on the country being open for business (even down to a prescient comment about the potential for mining), the closed circle of many expats in Haiti and even the paternalist need for an occupying army to stitch the country together (only after anti-American banditry is eradicated can Haitians ‘in time learn to govern themselves in freedom’) – all find their echoes in the 21st century. Some narratives apparently take a little longer to change.