Haiti’s Tourist Hype

Gingerbread house in Port-au-Prince (Image by Viran De Silva, via Lonely Planet)
Gingerbread house in Port-au-Prince (Image by Viran De Silva, via Lonely Planet)

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.

In the meantime, did I mention I wrote a guidebook to Haiti…?

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