The joys of old travel guides

1980s guidebooks to Haiti
1980s guidebooks to Haiti

I’m a sucker for old travel guidebooks. They’re like time capsules, revealing not just how countries change, but how travel – and travel writing – changes along with them. One of the favourites on my shelf is a 1986 copy of one of the original backpacking bibles, Lonely Planet’s Africa on a Shoestring. It’s a freewheeling sort of book that speaks to LP’s hippy trail roots. There’s not so much on the mechanics of getting from A to B, but plenty on scoring dope in Guinea-Bissau or how male travellers can hide their long hair when crossing into Malawi (their dictatorial President-for-Life hated hippies; the LP guide itself was a banned book). There’s also food for thought for nostalgists complaining how travel isn’t like it used to be. No-one is likely to be updating the section on where to find the best Chinese food in Mogadishu anytime soon, but the book also passes quickly over neighbouring Ethiopia, then inaccessible due to the murderous Derg regime in Addis Ababa, but now with a thriving tourist industry.

When talking about my Haiti guide for Bradt, I frequently tell people that it’s the first dedicated English guide to the country since the 1980s. So I was thrilled to recently pick up a copy of one of its forebears, previously unknown to me – Haiti: Voodoo Kingdom to Modern Riviera by John Allen Franciscus.

To foreign visitors at the time, Haiti was booming. Mass-market tourism was in, with Club Med opening its doors in 1980, just in time for the guidebook’s publication. Haiti was somewhere to forget your cares, renowned for sex tourism. Haiti was also a draw for foreign business. Under Jean-Claude Duvalier’s rule, sweatshops proliferated, manufacturing 90% of the world’s baseballs, with no inconvenient minimum wage.

We expect modern guidebooks today to be aimed at the middle-brow tourist in a hurry – plenty of ‘Best of’ lists, suggested itineraries and a dollop of insight. There’s none of that on display here. Indeed, the book’s over-sized format is hardly compatible with a day tramping around the tourist sites. Travel information such as hotel listings are briskly dealt with in the first dozen pages, before moving onto more interesting matters. It’s essentially an expat guide – the equivalent of those modern briefing kits given out to NGO workers or church volunteers on mission, just without any fussing over cultural niceties.

So, what did an American heading to Port-au-Prince in 1980 need to know?

History, for a start. There’s a decent account of the Haitian Revolution, even hat-tipping CLR James’s classic The Black Jacobins, despite its ‘Marxist-Trotskyite’ undertones. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the US occupation garners plenty of enthusiasm. While acknowledging that the American use of forced labour might have been a step too far, the book dutifully notes:

For nineteen years Haiti had its first taste of the practical outside world… In short, the marines improved whatever they touched.

In case you don’t get a clear enough picture of where the author is coming from, we’re left with a smiling portrait of Duvalier fils, and a reminder that a country like Haiti will always need ‘a strong hand and a benevolent dictator’ to keep things in order.

There then follows a short picture-led gazetteer to Port-au-Prince and the country at large. Relatively few foreigners these days visit the dock areas downtown or the decrepit Bicentenaire, and it’s bitter-sweet to recall that this area was once a dynamic area known for its modernist architecture and nightlife, and that tourists arriving by ship (as most did) would likely be reminded of the Bay of Naples or the French Riviera as they steamed into Port-au-Prince. Outside the capital there’s a decent room-by-room walking tour of the Citadelle, and even a few gems to follow up on for the next edition of my own Haiti guide. For instance, does anyone know what happened to the monument to Franklin D Roosevelt in Cap-Haïtien?

A Haiti guidebook writer, with bored 'native' companion.
A happy Haiti guidebook writer. His companion, less so.

After a long diversion about the value of Haitian art, we get to the meat of the book. Readers are treated to the ins and outs of life as an American in Haiti. There are are long sections on business and employment law, how best to decorate your new home and even how much maternity leave female employees are entitled to should they get pregnant. Residents are advised to join a local club and church to get on in society, and spend 20 minutes a day on their French grammar (the thought that Creole, the first language of over 90% of the population, might be more useful never occurs). Those readers who nodded approvingly at the account of the US occupation would have found much to cheer them – an enviable lifestyle, plenty of servants (always servants, never staff) and ‘low cost labor.’ In today’s parlance, Haiti was certainly ‘open for business.’ Perhaps an updated edition should be due for those investors heading to the country’s new Caracol Industrial Park.

Of course, hard-working businessmen need to unwind, and it’s here that the author suddenly realises he needs to think like a guidebook writer, and provide some proper reviews. But the ‘voodoo’ shows aimed at the regular tourists don’t interest him or his readers, so off we go to the brothels that lined the Carrefour Road out of Port-au-Prince. The backrooms of bars are commended for cleanliness, the friendliest madams are cheered, and the rigorousness of venereal disease-testing noted. Reviewing the Copacabana Bar for example:

This gets high marks because it is an open pavilion and the fifteen girls are quite attractive. Here 60% of the girls are Spanish-speaking from the Dominican Republic. They range in age from late teens to early twenties and usually only spend a month under their visa restrictions before they return to their normal ordinary jobs in their own country. Their parents are not usually aware they have gone “professional.”

It’s all jaw-dropping stuff. But while the attitudes on display are abhorrent (Haitians are frequently referred to as ‘natives’), it’s a revealing look into the mindset of many foreigners travelling to Haiti at the time. The country was about cheap assembly factories and having a louche time – screwing Haitians, basically – so by his own standards the author actually does his job as a guidebook writer very well, hitting all the spots that his target audience need. There’s even a detailed section on how to get a quickie divorce.

For all the author’s assertions about the stability and prosperity of the Haitian regime, and all it offered to visitors, he’s painting an attractive fantasy for his readers. The good life was always an illusion for those suffering under the Duvalier dictatorship. As the book came out, the ‘AIDS scare’ of the early 1980s was waiting around the corner, about to cause Haitian tourism numbers to collapse virtually overnight. Any remaining visitors were driven away after the ouster of Jean-Claude Duvalier in 1986 and the troubles that followed.

Haiti: Voodoo Kingdom to Modern Riviera is certainly a flawed and problematic book, but as a window into a world that was about to come crashing down, it’s never less than fascinating.


3 replies on “The joys of old travel guides”

  1. This is fabulous, Paul. I’m a big fan of the old guidebooks myself. While the truly ancient ones are fascinating – and frequently hilarious – I actually find that it’s those from about a decade ago that are often the most striking. The tone of LP books from the late 90s/early2000s is a world away from their current style, and I find a glimmer of poignant nostalgia in the pre-wi-fi practicalities.
    I just, a little regretfully, took out the post restante listing in a book I’m currently updating that hasn’t had much serious attention since the 1990s.

  2. Nice article.
    Although I am 21 years old, I really enjoy finding old guidebooks in random bookstores or hostels. I read them a lot, because I am always wondering how traveling must have been at that time: No ATMs, no Internet and so on. By reading old guide books in addition to ask my parents or old travelers I meet on the road, I can get an idea of that, which I really enjoy. Especially when the guidebook is about a place I visited myself…

  3. Paul – really insightful find about attitudes from not so long ago. While the author’s views would be intolerable to current sensibilities and obligatory political correctness (and Parliamentary enquiry no doubt), it’s still a refreshingly frank, naive and uninhibited trip. Smacks of colonialism in ways. But it is nostalgia. If you find other examples….. Cheers, MC

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